New leader’s vision for Center for Latin American Studies will build on institution’s historical success while combining with Latinx studies

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American Studies will expand its purview—merging with the Program in Latino and Latina Studies—and will be led by Celso Castilho, associate professor of history, 2021 Chancellor’s Faculty Fellow and faculty head of Memorial House. The interdisciplinary research center is the largest of its kind at Vanderbilt, with more than 100 faculty spanning 11 departments and nine schools. It will also be renamed the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies (CLACX).

The center began as an institute for Brazilian studies in 1947 and expanded into a national leader in Guatemalan and Mayan studies, as well as offering specialties in Andean studies and Afro Latin America.

Led for the past nearly 20 years by Ted Fischer, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Anthropology, the center received more than $7.5 million in external funding and was designated a National Resource Center on Latin America in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education. Its mission is to teach students, the business community and the general public about Latin America, and it administers federal Foreign Language Area Studies grants to study regional languages. Fischer also started language programs in K’iche’ Mayan—then the only ones in the country focused on this critical language—and the Duke/UVA/UNC/Vanderbilt Partnership for Less Commonly Taught Languages. Fischer’s legacy includes an extensive K–12 and public outreach program through strong partnerships with the Library of Congress, Frist Art Museum, Cheekwood Estate & Gardens, Nashville Opera, Nashville Children’s Theatre and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

“Ted Fischer’s leadership has dramatically expanded the reach and influence of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies,” said Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs C. Cybele Raver. “The center is well-positioned to flourish, amplify its research impact and serve as a thought-leading destination for studies related to the regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Latinx culture.” 

From cementing its distinction as a National Resource Center to developing its role as a regional hub for cultural enrichment and education, Ted Fischer’s leadership dramatically expanded the reach and influence of Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies. The center is well-positioned to expand its impact toward studying the regions of Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Latinx culture.

John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, said, “For twenty years, Ted Fischer has brought his heart and soul to the Center for Latin American Studies as its director and we couldn’t be more grateful for his service and dedication to the center and the community it serves. Now, as we merge the center with the Latinx Studies program, we have the opportunity to expand the program and its reach, and address some of the critical and pertinent issues facing our world today. I’m also pleased to welcome the new director of the combined program, Associate Professor of History Celso Castilho, whose unique background and expertise will grow and solidify the program’s reputation as a comprehensive National Resource Center.

Building upon this legacy of academic excellence, Castilho plans to uphold the center as a nationally renowned research institute while combining its mission with that of the Latino and Latina studies program. Castilho wants to increase undergraduate, graduate and faculty research opportunities in Latinx and Latin American studies at Vanderbilt while continuing collaborative educational projects with U.S. and Latin American institutions, including the active relationships with HBCUs like Fisk University and Tuskegee University.

The Latino and Latina studies program was created in 2014 and has been led by Gretchen Selcke since 2019. In addition to building community and scholarly inquiry, it has developed the SomosVU initiative, the Latinx Graduates Recognition Ceremony and internship opportunities for undergraduates in Nashville. By bringing scholars and authors like Daniel Alarcón and Daisy Hernández to campus, it has established Vanderbilt’s role as a leader in the growing field of Latinx studies.

“The merging of the Latino and Latina studies program with the center will allow us to leverage faculty expertise to build a research plan that reflects emerging scholarship and positions Vanderbilt as a vanguard in this space,” said Selcke, who will be the assistant director of the center and a senior lecturer in the program. “By combining efforts, we can expand our footprint in terms of scholarship and visibility.”

Castilho, who was recently elected incoming vice president and president-elect of the Conference on Latin American History, will expand the center’s breadth of research and education by hiring more faculty and developing a cohesive research agenda that aims to establish Vanderbilt as a thought leader in studying Latinos in the South. Castilho intends to host at the center a biannual symposium on Latinos in the South to foster interdisciplinary networks and boost existing research, not just from other departments on campus but also from similar institutes in the region.

“I plan to lead the center in carrying out interdisciplinary research that will attract junior scholars doing groundbreaking work that will meaningfully engage and impact discussions on current social issues—everything from labor issues and immigration to education and health disparities,” Castilho said.

As importantly, Castilho looks forward to engaging the Vanderbilt and greater Nashville communities with outreach events for public audiences of all ages and to creating touchstones for discussion on issues that need to be made more tangible. According to Nashville’s metro government, Latinos are on track to become the region’s largest minority group—making up 19 percent of the population by 2040. By establishing the center as a pillar of research on the greater Latin American diaspora and area studies, he hopes to help Vanderbilt take part in and contribute to the strengthening of the fast-growing Latinx community in Nashville while continuing to support extraordinary scholarship.