A bridge to Latin America

For over three decades, Tinker professors have created connections with Chicago.

More than 100 distinguished scholars of Latin America, Spain, and Portugal have helped build enduring connections to Chicago through the Tinker Visiting Professor program, which marked its 30th anniversary in 2011–12. 

Having the chance to teach and pursue research at the University has proven valuable to participating scholars in different ways.

Alfredo Jocelyn-Holt has written many influential books on Chilean history, but he never taught a course that compared independence movements throughout Latin America until his stint as a Tinker professor. Spending time on campus this past winter quarter was intriguing for another reason, too.

“The University of Chicago sparks the imagination of any Chilean because of the Chicago Boys,” says Jocelyn-Holt. Economists trained by UChicago faculty beginning in the 1950s, the Chicago Boys had broad influence in Chile and “were highly revolutionary in terms of their economic mentality, so you are always curious about what the institution is like from an inside point of view.”

Gerardo Esquivel, an economist from the Colegio de Mexico, writes a popular blog called El placer de disentir (The pleasure of dissenting) and served as an economic adviser to Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He says his 2010–11 Tinker professorship gave him a chance to work on book-length projects and teach a course on Mexico’s political economy for the first time in his career.

Tinker professors are usually prominent academics, but the program has also attracted activists, artists, and writers. Alma Guillermoprieto taught three classes on recent Latin American history, revisiting revolutions and civil conflicts she had covered as a reporter. Spending time at the University, she says, “allowed me to systematize the knowledge and experience I’d acquired in the course of 30 years as a journalist.”

Such stories only hint at the returns on an investment made in 1981, when the Edward Larocque Tinker Foundation established the program with a grant to the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). The foundation supported similar short-term residencies at Columbia, Stanford, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They shared a common goal: to expose US students and faculty to Latin American perspectives and foster cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary ties.

Mauricio Tenorio contributes to the conversation. Photo by Jason Smith

Tinker professors are nominated by Chicago faculty and hosted by departments across the University for a quarter or more. Those chosen are “the best scholars of the Americas and the Iberian world,” says history professor and CLAS director Mauricio Tenorio. In all, CLAS has welcomed 103 visiting professors from 18 different academic disciplines and ten countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and Venezuela. 

Most teach courses in the social sciences and humanities, drawing graduate and undergraduate students from such fields as economics, history, anthropology, political science, international relations, music, and Romance languages and literatures. The Harris School of Public Policy and the Biological Sciences Division have also hosted Tinker scholars, a trend that Tenorio expects to continue.

Tenorio believes the program offers equal value to visiting professors and the University. Any senior scholar from Latin America, Spain, or Portugal “is aware of the debates in the United States and yet doesn’t have access to the libraries, dialogues, workshops, conferences, and data banks that we have here,” he says. “So it’s a win-win situation: they come; they inevitably confront us with our parochialism, and at the same time they benefit enormously from the resources of the University.”

Jocelyn-Holt worked on two books while at Chicago, including a memoir focusing on the 2011 student protests at the University of Chile, his home institution. Teaching courses and sharing his research in progress was “incredibly valuable,” he says. “It allows you to think over things that you think are obvious—but they’re not so obvious if you’re presenting them in a different environment, to different people.”

Over three decades, the Tinker Foundation’s original $750,000 grant has grown into an endowment worth more than $7 million. Those resources have made it possible for CLAS to organize conferences and underwrite publications with former Tinker professors and their Chicago colleagues as collaborators.

A 2009 University conference on environmental policy, social movements, and science in the Brazilian Amazon followed residencies by three former Tinker professors from Brazil—Mary Helena Allegretti, Mauro Barbosa de Almeida, and Ricardo Paes de Barros. The three have created enduring relationships with Chicago faculty and opened their networks to students pursuing research in Brazil on related topics.

Scholars of Mexico have collaborated for three different Tinker-funded conferences, including a 2007 gathering on land, politics, and revolution that honored emeritus history professor Friedrich Katz. He died in 2010, but the project generated a book, Revolución y exilio en la historia de México (Ediciones Era, 2010), to which several former Tinker professors contributed. 

By bringing eminent Latin American intellectuals to campus, the program adds a distinctive component to the training of Chicago graduate students. Tinker professors advise students’ theses and dissertations; they might even be called upon to write letters of recommendation. But most important, they offer perspectives and contacts that can point young researchers in valuable new directions.

Patrick Iber, PhD’11 (History), worked as a teaching assistant for Guillermoprieto while writing his dissertation. “She covered, as a journalist, events which I had only read about in texts and documents,” he says. Tapping her extensive professional network, she put him in touch with others who could talk to him about his work. 

Perhaps the program’s most vital contribution is how it has exposed Chicago faculty and students to new ways of thinking.

Iber also connected with the Chilean novelist and diplomat Jorge Edwards, who came as a Tinker professor twice—in 1990–91 and 2009. “Because I write about Latin American intellectuals during the Cold War, Jorge Edwards actually appears as a ‘character’ in my dissertation,” says Iber. “It was extraordinary to be able to talk to him.” Iber did an interview with Edwards that was published by the Chicago Review and the prestigious Mexican journal Letras Libres, and they remain in touch.

“With this wave of scholars coming every year, we have established channels and bridges that have benefited our students enormously,” says Tenorio. “They serve as ambassadors for our students,” steering them toward archives, people, and approaches that guide students’ research.

Perhaps the program’s most vital contribution is how it has exposed Chicago faculty and students to new ways of thinking. Many works by leading social scientists from Latin America, Portugal, and Spain are never translated into English. As a result, says Tenorio, academics who don’t read other languages may be unfamiliar with important theoretical scholarship from the region.

Those barriers break down when faculty and students can meet and discuss ideas in person, whether they’re analyzing race in contemporary Brazil, economic reforms in Chile, or legal thought in 19th-century Mexico.

“The Tinker professors are fundamental,” says Tenorio, “because it’s like bringing the books here to speak.”