Amid their significant contribution to research, there is a pressing need for greater recognition of Latin America academics at Imperial.
UK universities have a large and vibrant community of Latin American students, and a considerable representation of Latin American academics. Yet it is a community whose place in the UK has traditionally been uncertain. Recently, the Latin America Visible at Imperial project aimed to explore Latin American inclusivity within academia, particularly at Imperial College London. The project was made possible by the College’s Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Seed Funds awarded to Dr Judith A. Cherni from the Centre for Environmental Policy.
“At Imperial, the initiative Global Imperial states that Latin America is an increasingly important partner, yet little is known about the Latin American experience as a distinct group at Imperial. Universities are no exception to a lack of recognition for Latin Americans,” said Judith, who has been involved with both Departmental EDI efforts and the College Racial Equality Charter.
The experiences of the Latin American community in education is an emerging area of discussion. The King’s College London’s report on the representation, engagement, and participation of young Latinx undergraduates is a ground-breaking study (Robertson, Baars & Bowen-Viner, 2019). As a new academic year commences, there is an opportunity to critically reflect on facilitating greater inclusion going forward.
Chaired by Dr Cherni, five members of Imperial at different stages in their careers were brought together for an online panel and roundtable discussion on the 17th of June, where they reflected on how their Latin American backgrounds have shaped their experiences. There was also a guest presentation by Paulina Tamborrel, Community Organiser at Citizens UK and a key contributor to the King’s College report, as well as comments by David Pedreros Bastidas, President of Imperial's Latin-American Society.
“They call us ‘the invisibles’, los invisibles. For all our colours, flavours and rhythms; Latin Americans would expect all before invisibility. We pride ourselves in our joy, musical spirits, and loud voices,” wrote Tamborrel in the King’s College report.
Identity of the Latin American community
Cherni feels that greater mobilisation is necessary to address the points raised by the panel. Currently, ‘Latin American’ is not recognised as a distinct ethnic group, neither by the national census nor the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service), job applications, or promotion forms. As a result of this hidden status, says Cherni, it is challenging to establish the experiences faced by Latin Americans in education as well as the barriers to career progression faced by Latin American academics.
“It’s really hard in the UK, and particularly at Imperial, to know who is a Latin American. Latin Americans that do have dual nationality end up in all the systems as European” said panellist Dr Diego Mesa Peña, Research Associate within the Department of Earth Science & Engineering. Mesa Peña also served as President of Imperial’s Latin-American Society in 2017 and organised the first Symposium of Researchers for Latin America in 2018.
The Latin American identity is also itself ethnically diverse with a population encompassing European, Indigenous, Asian, African and other origins, raising the importance of a dynamic approach towards inclusivity. There was debate over how to meaningfully apply the term BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic).
“When you put lots of things together, like having an accent or being a woman, or your race, it becomes much more complicated. So perhaps a single BAME label is too simplistic, but we still need to move forward and have a better classification of who we are,” said panellist Dr Cristina Banks-Leite, Senior Lecturer in Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. Banks-Leite also promotes academic partnerships with Brazil on the steering committee of the Imperial College Brazil Forum.
A shared barrier was also being able to declare two surnames or surnames with accents.
“Such a small fact but so important is that you cannot put two last surnames in forms. In my case, I’m ‘Mesa Peña’, but in all the forms, I need to just write ‘Pena’, which is really ‘sad’ - literally, Pena means sad in Spanish! So just doing that little change, not only in the academic sector but on all forms, is something that would really help with recognising our identity,” Mesa Peña said.
Having to constantly reflect on whether missed opportunities were genuine, or the product of biases, was seen as draining. Some panellists felt that hinting at allegations of discrimination was the only way to garner legitimate recognition for their concerns.
“Sometimes you don’t really know if people are being racist or just ignoring you - which is also a way of discrimination. I received an international award in 2014, and informed both my department and the College Newspaper, but nobody cared. Two or three weeks later, I sent another message saying: ‘I am sorry, I am just a woman, and I am just from Latin America, but I think it would be good to encourage academics through recognition of their work’. Only then I received a reply from the Newspaper,” said panellist Dr Rocio Diaz-Chavez, Senior Research Fellow at Imperial.
It was felt that it can be difficult to progress in certain roles despite having the required qualifications, publications, funding, and having worked for an extended period of time in Imperial. Panellists felt that such push back was often justified through claims that candidates do not have the necessary credentials or are not ‘ready yet’ for the post, but without substantiated evidence. It was also noted that Latin American ethnicity felt like a material barrier, intersecting with other barriers such as age and gender.
Going forward - Strengthening equality, diversity, and inclusion
Latin America Visible at Imperial was the first project of its kind at Imperial to address Latin American inclusivity in academia specifically.
“The candid and enlightening findings from this brief project attest to the importance of continuing to provide support each year to projects that aim at build a more inclusive institutional culture at Imperial. We do not wish this to be a tick box exercise,” said Cherni.
Some concrete recommendations from the project include providing opportunities to identity as Latin American in College records and greater recognition of equivalent Latin American qualifications. The existence of support networks, Euro-centralism, fostering Latin American culture, and decolonising research were also discussed. The College and colleagues could do more to ensure that PhD students from outside Europe and Latin America experience stronger senses of belonging. A distinct affirmation was that inclusivity creates value for all parties, with Latin American researchers finding opportunities for themselves and their communities, and UK-based research groups as a whole being enriched from the experience.
“I spent four or five months living in the Amazon with Indigenous communities. I’m now including the perspectives from these minority groups in my research and thus bringing their voice into academia. There is a big gap between global north research, policy, and global south realities. So being the bridge to connect these spheres is important. It is important to construct this new identity of Latin American society,” said panellist Diego Hopkins, Peruvian lawyer and research postgraduate.
Panellist Dr Pablo Brito-Parada, Senior Lecturer within the Department of Earth Science & Engineering, mentioned how he is often able to mentor new Latin American researchers in his mining and mineral processing research group, which often takes him to Latin America. He referenced how it was a valuable experience for non-Latin Americans as well.
“A few years ago, I had an opportunity for a non-Latin American student in my group to spend some time in Chile. And then the experience goes both ways. There’s a lot of input from the Latin American connection that can be beneficial to my research group, while also having the opportunity for non-Latin American students to spend some time there, while not just benefitting from the science but also the culture,” said Brito-Parada.
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Centre for Environmental Policy