In 1947, Chancellor Harvie Branscomb established the Institute for Brazilian Studies at Vanderbilt with funding from the Carnegie Corporation as part of a cooperative grant with four other institutions– Tulane University, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and the University of Texas at Austin. In the aftermath of WWII, the U.S. government sought to establish academic programs that would produce specialized knowledge about countries around the world, with a particular emphasis on Latin America. The Institute at Vanderbilt was the first of its kind in the United States. While a well-known and highly regarded institution at the national level, Branscomb sought to bring the world into Vanderbilt and, conversely, Vanderbilt into the world. To accomplish this, he began hiring faculty specialists from across disciplines that would train students to become experts in the history, language, and culture of the region. The first faculty leaders in the initiative (pictured above from left to right) were T. Lynn Smith, Professor of Sociology and first Director of the Brazilian Institute; Earl W. Thomas, Assistant Professor of Romance Languages; Reynold E. Carlson, Associate Professor of Economics and United Nations economic consultant on Latin America; and Alexander Marchant, Associate Professor of History, who was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro and worked with the American Embassy in Rio de Janeiro from 1945-1947. The early years of the Institute were heavily influenced by Cold War-era foreign policy and its faculty were influential in government policy– both from the U.S. and the Brazilian side. The Institute was so unique that Brazilian President Eurico Dutra, at the time a sitting head of state, requested to visit Nashville after meeting with President Truman in Washington, D.C. in 1949.
By 1961, funding sources and intellectual interests had shifted and the Institute for Brazilian Studies expanded into the Graduate Center for Latin American Studies (GCLAS), with an emphasis on the Southern Cone. As a result of the influential directorship of economist Reynold Carlson in the 1950s, GCLAS worked closely with the Graduate Program in Economic Development (GPED) at Vanderbilt, established in 1956. Vanderbilt received a USAID/Ford Foundation grant in 1965 to create graduate economics programs in São Paulo, Brazil and the initiative was jointly administered by GPED and GCLAS. At the same time, William Nicholls, a faculty member in the Department of Economics, became the Director of of GCLAS in 1965 and remained there until 1977. The transition to the Graduate Center for Latin American Studies proved highly successful, facilitating diversified funding sources and a growing list of affiliated faculty. GCLAS began recruiting PhD candidates in the 1960s after receiving National Defense Education Act federal grants. These funds provided critical support for students and faculty to study lesser-commonly-taught languages like Portuguese and Nahuatl, in addition to Spanish. The 1970s saw the addition of undergraduate courses on Latin America and a push to build up the Vanderbilt Libraries collection on Latin American topics.
In 1981, GCLAS was renamed the Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies (CLAIS) and came under the leadership of Enrique Pupo-Walker (pictured right). Pupo-Walker, a specialist in Latin American and Spanish literature, brought a renewed sense of purpose and vision to the Center. Under his guidance, CLAIS was chosen as a training program for U.S. military cultural attachés bound for service in Latin America. Through the creation of international student exchange programs and hosting multi-disciplinary international conferences, Pupo-Walker reconnected the Center with Latin American scholars and gave the program global visibility. His co-editorship of the renowned Cambridge History of Latin American Literature series brought numerous writers and artists to Vanderbilt’s campus.
The program emerged as the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) in the early 2000s and has continued to gain momentum and expand its mission. Now boasting a profound specialization in Guatemala and Mayan Studies, CLAS is considered a national leader in the field. While Brazilian Studies continues to be an area of strength, growing specialties also include Colombian/Andean Studies and the Black Atlantic thanks to the 100+ affiliated faculty members at Vanderbilt who currently work on Latin America issues. CLAS was first designated a National Resource Center on Latin America by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006. With this comprehensive NRC status, came federal funding to help students, educators, and the general public learn about Latin America. The Center uses an interdisciplinary collaboration model to bring together scholars from every school and college at Vanderbilt and build research projects that have broad and sustainable impacts (e.g. malnutrition in Guatemala, the legacies of slavery in Brazil). It administers Title VI Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) grants for the study of Brazilian Portuguese, Haitian Creole, and K’iche’ Mayan that support the Latin American Studies curriculum for undergraduates and graduates at Vanderbilt. CLAS organizes professional development workshops, summer institutes, and cultural arts events to engage K-16 educators and community stakeholders.
For over 70 years, CLAS has used a combination of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and outreach to establish itself as a dynamic and effective center of learning, with influence stretching across the United States and abroad.