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Faculty Focus

35 Years of Cultural (and Campus) Changes

Professor Peter Klarén (right) with President Alejandro Toledo of Peru in 2001 at GW.

A high school Spanish class had a life-changing impact on Peter Klarén, director of GW’s Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program, who started his 35th year at the University this fall.

“I went to college and continued to study Spanish history, loved my Spanish civilization professors, and after I graduated, I lived in Spain for several months,” Klarén says. He planned to continue Spanish studies as a grad student at UCLA, but fate—and other plans—shifted his focus.

“When I got out there, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 had already happened, and this had a big impact on our government, which had a paucity of specialists on Latin America; they didn’t really know what on earth to do about what was happening there,” Klarén says. As a result, a good deal of fellowship funds became available, and so he began to focus on Latin American history—which brought about personal and professional growth.

“It was an understudied part of the world. Nobody paid much attention to it, and there were a lot of misconceptions about it,” Klarén says. “I got into it because I thought I could make a mark, and it turned out that I could.”

As the Latino population in the United States rapidly grows, Klarén’s expertise is becoming increasingly vital. “Who would have thought that we would have so many Latinos in this country, that the country would be ‘Latinized’ to this effect? I don’t think the Latino population boom was anticipated; it just unfolded and happened, although in retrospect, one can see that the root cause of the phenomenon was the ‘dirty wars.’” These were state directed actions against revolutionary groups in Argentina, Chile, and then Central America, which indiscriminately targeted civilians and brought about massive human rights violations, as the number of so called “disappeared” persons escalated and torture camps proliferated in the 1970s and ’80s throughout Latin America.

Klarén credits the growth of GW’s Latin American Studies Program to federal grants that improved the quality of the undergraduate program and the collaboration between the School of Business and Elliott School of International Affairs. He also says the collaboration of his colleagues in the program contribute to its continued success.

As public interest in Latin American affairs is on the rise, so is the number of incoming students eager to learn about the region.

“During the past six years, we’ve seen an increased interest in the undergraduate program, and we have many more majors and double majors,” Klarén says. “At the same time, we’re getting very good students in the graduate program.”

Many incoming students also have traveled throughout Latin America, Klarén says, or take his classes as part of what he calls a “roots phenomenon,” to learn more about where they come from. Many of his students are second generation Latinos whose parents immigrated to the East Coast.

Klarén is known for his ability to connect with students, winning the Trachtenberg Teaching Prize in 1995.

Outside the classroom, Klarén’s scholarly contributions are significant to the growing field. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which was published in Spanish for distribution throughout Latin America. He also is a member of the international editorial committee for the project “Historicizing the Time of Troubles in Argentina, Chile, and Peru,” that will produce an electronic publication sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

In the past 35 years, Klarén has witnessed great change in Latin American regions, his field of study, and inside the classroom. The University, he says, has undergone a transformation as well.

“When I came to GW, this was a very small, largely undergraduate-oriented commuter college with a scattering of graduate programs, and an undersized infrastructure. I remember when the library was in the old Lisner Hall.

“The campus really has changed dramatically, particularly under President Trachtenberg. President Elliott did a tremendous job getting funding at the University in order, but Trachtenberg has, as you can see, built up the University so it is a very different and impressive place now, visually and with the number and quality of students that we have.”

—Maureen Ryan