Celebrating UI's Professors: Illuminating Stories and Contributions During Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month

You are here

October 10, 2023
National Hispanic Latinx Heritage Month

Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month takes place annually from September 15th to October 15th.  It is a time to celebrate Hispanic and Latinx history and culture, and to commemorate the contributions of individuals with Latin American and Hispanic heritage living in the United States.

To celebrate, we are honoring Hispanic and Latinx professors at the University of Iowa who are making lasting impacts on students and our campus community. Traditionally, people with Hispanic and Latinx heritage make up only 10% of college professors in the U.S. and just 4% at the UI, even though 7% of Iowans and 19% of Americans are Hispanic or Latinx.  We are excited to shine a spotlight on the rich and diverse tapestry of these professors. Let's celebrate the remarkable contributions, experiences, and stories that our educators bring to our campus community and beyond. We are eager to delve into their journeys, their research, and their perspectives, as they play a vital role in shaping our academic environment.

Professor Armando ZavaletaProfessor Armando Zavaleta

Professor Zavaleta is a Lecturer in Economics at the University of Iowa. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Calgary, an MA in Economics from the College of Mexico, and a BA in Economics from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In 2023, he received the Faculty/Staff Member Making a Positive Difference in the Life of a Graduating Senior award from the University of Iowa. Armando has authored several publications, including "Climate Change and Breakthrough Technologies: The Role of Markets" and "Refining for Export and the Convergence of Petroleum Product Prices."

We caught up with Professor Zavaleta, for a Q and A: 

Professor, what does your Hispanic/Latino heritage mean to you?

“I am proud to be Latino and I identify strongly with my heritage. I am proud of my Latino culture and my language. In the US there are more than 63 million Hispanics, making us the nation's largest racial or ethnic minority (according to the US Census Bureau). In fact, the US is the country with the second-highest number of Hispanics in the world. We Latinos are a fundamental part of American society.” 

How has your background shaped or inspired your career aspirations?

“I am from a small town about six hours west of Mexico City and I come from poverty. There are not a lot of educational opportunities where I am from, so I had to leave for Mexico City when I was 15 to go to high school and then to university. I was the first member of my family to go to college. So, I would say that these experiences and sacrifices made me commit even more to studying and being successful at what I put my mind to. As well, living by myself in Mexico City meant I had to be independent and learn to look after myself on my own quickly.” 

What are you most proud of when you think about your heritage?

“I am most proud of the resiliency that many Latinos have. Many Latinos come to this country seeking opportunities – whether for ourselves or for our children – and life here can be hard. But the increasing numbers of Latino community college and university students shows that despite these challenges, our community is building a strong future.” 

Recent numbers show us Latinas/Latinos only make up 10% of college professors in the US. What does your role as a professor mean to you?

“According to the US Census Bureau, Hispanics represented 19.1% of the American population in 2022, so we Latinos are definitely underrepresented as college professors. Therefore, I value the opportunity I have, as a Latino and first-generation professor, to teach and motivate Latino and non-Latino students to obtain the best education possible here at the University of Iowa because that provides great opportunities to be successful in life.” 

What advice would you give to an aspiring Latina/Latino professor 

“Be proud of who you are and be true to that. In some ways it can be challenging to be the only Latino amongst non-Latinos. I have experienced that. And if someone around you needs a hand, be the first to reach out. We are stronger together.”

Professor Consuelo Guayara SanchezProfessor Consuelo Guayara Sánchez

Professor Guayara Sánchez is a highly accomplished academic with a PhD and MA in Geography from the University of Iowa, specializing in human geography with a focus on Latin America. Her research explores the construction of environmental policies in the Amazon basin in Brazil and Colombia. She has a wealth of teaching experience, emphasizing themes of sustainability and cross-cultural awareness in her courses, with a strong service-learning component. In addition to her academic work, she has administrative experience in Colombia. Her research now centers on sustainable food production projects in Colombia, with an expanding interest in community resilience.

We sat down with her to learn more about her journey as a professor. 

What does your Hispanic/Latino heritage mean to you?

“My Hispanic heritage is central to who I am as an individual and informs my lived experiences as well as my work as a faculty member. It is what shapes every part of my day from the moment I open my eyes, the way I interact with others. From what I choose to eat for lunch all the way to how I carry myself in spaces where someone like myself may have never been in before. My heritage and lived experience, especially as a Latina, has driven me to pursue and uplift the voices of other Latinas and of those from communities whose voices are often unheard or overlooked. Among them, those of indigenous communities producing organic coffee in Colombia who work the land applying sustainable practices as result of a dynamic indigenous knowledge that interweaves ancestral knowledges with conventional knowledge. These practices allow them to mitigate climate change through their soil protection practices, produce their own food while helping their neighbors, domestic and wild animals, and conserve rivers and water springs. I have always done research with rural farmers, and my interest on Agrarian problems and the environment stems from my heritage but also my passion for what I do, what I care about. That interest has permeated both my teaching and research endeavors. My research interests are a direct reflection of my pursuit to better understand where I come from and make sure that our communities’ stories are amplified, and our knowledge is credited back to our indigenous communities.” 

How has your background shaped or inspired your career aspirations? 

“I come from a long line of farmers in Colombia, who had to escape violence in the rural areas to survive. Although my mother was never given the opportunity to study past sixth grade, she believed in the transformational power of education and realized the relevance of women’s education in opening the doors for a better and more fulfilling lives not only for individuals, but families, and communities. She instilled this in me and my siblings at very young age. Her love and passion for education led me to dream of reaching the highest level of education to contribute to communities’ transformation and development for the better. My mother’s endless pursuit to provide her daughters opportunities she had only ever dreamed of served as my guidepost to pursue the impossible in hopes of achieving my dreams.” 

What are you most proud of when you think about your heritage? 

“The values instilled in us that became guiding principles in our lives. Honesty, hard work, loyalty to friends and family, high standards, persistence, and care for what we do and what surrounds us. Our heritage has been able to survive for generations on our ability to build community around each other to overcome and persist even in the most challenging traumatic times. Our sense of community is what continues to carry us forward every day. I am proud to reflect the effort, passion, and drive my family and my communities poured into me and I hope to give that back through my teaching and research.” 

Recent numbers show us, Latinas/Latinos only make up 10% of college professors in the US. What does your role as a professor mean to you? 

“That has become part of my identity and my way to reciprocate what my family, public education, and society have provided me. I am a proud product of the public education system and grateful to have been a recipient of the Andean Peace Program. After I initiated my teaching research and career in Colombia, this program opened the possibility of achieving my dream of earning a doctoral degree. I enjoy being able to provide all my students with global perspectives, help them explore the world, and support them as they question themselves and each other in brave spaces. My drive and interest in sustainability comes from this global perspective. When I go to other parts of the world, like the Pacific Northwest, Denmark, or Italy to talk about these issues, I meet other people who are also thinking of sustainability. Practices and perspectives from different parts of the world are shared in international conferences about sustainability in Food Studies. In Denmark, for example, among multiple practices of sustainability the society is following, there is a social interest in using knowledge and reflection about taste to teach children and young people to make conscious decisions about food choices. Being a professor has given me the opportunity for that knowledge exchange. I love being able to learn and bring back knowledge acquired at conferences to the University of Iowa and our students. I dream that my own daughter can use my experience as a professor in the U.S. to be better equipped to pursue her own Ph.D. and pursue her interests in higher education to help drive that number even higher. My hope is that more and more Latino/a/x students, no matter the age or circumstance, are given the opportunity to explore their passions in research and teaching in higher education.” 

What advice would you give to an aspiring Latina/Latino professor? 

“The journey is not easy, but we are nourished from our ancestors and communities with enough passion, perseverance, and commitment to make anything possible. What always help is to find your community, find mentors, find people that lift up your work and never give up on pursuing your dreams.”

HeadshotProfessor Viridiana Hernández Fernández

Viridiana Hernández Fernández is a historian specializing in 20th-century environmental history of Mexico. She earned her PhD from the University of California, Davis in 2021 and is currently working on her first book, "Guacamole Ecosystems," which explores the role of indigenous peasants and migrant workers in transforming Mexico's countryside, particularly in avocado cultivation. Her research has received support from various organizations. In her teaching, Dr. Hernández promotes interdisciplinary thinking and examines the historical origins of social and environmental injustices while emphasizing diverse agents in shaping our collective present.

We caught up with her to learn more about her hertitage.

What does your Hispanic/Latino heritage mean to you?

"Being Latina defines who I am and how I interact with the world around me. The music I listen to, the food I like, how I dress, how I talk, and even my intellectual interests are grounded in my Mexican identity."

How has your background shaped or inspired your career aspirations?

"I was born and raised in Mexico City. Growing up in one of the largest cities in the Western Hemisphere made me curious to understand my country's history in a larger transnational framework. As I grew up and realized the stark contrast in the everyday lives of people living in different places, I became more intrigued about the less notorious linkages among them. I decided to start a career in academia to understand the origins and transnational connections of some of Mexico's most pressing environmental concerns, like the late twentieth-century rapid deforestation due to food production for global markets."

What are you most proud of when you think about your heritage?

"I have always felt amazed by how people from Latin America, in and out of the region, have consistently refused to lose joy, even when circumstances are adverse. People resist hardships and rebel in the face of injustice, but it always amazes me how, in most cases, Latina, Latino, and Latine/x people fight for our right to happiness."

Recent numbers show us, Latinas/Latinos only make up 10% of college professors in the US. What does your role as a professor mean to you?

"Being a professor is one of my life's most valuable professional and personal experiences. I feel an enormous appreciation for what I do and am incredibly grateful for all the effort that a long list of people before me have made, directly and indirectly, to put me in front of a classroom. As I am convinced that representation matters, I also make my identity as a Mexican scholar clear and visible to anyone, so envisioning a future in academia may become a concrete option for everybody and not an imaginative exercise for Latine/x people."

What advice would you give to an aspiring Latina/Latino professor?

"Ask questions, always, as many as needed, about anything you need a response to. Not knowing is okay. Seek the answers you need. The path might be challenging, but it is much easier when we have a clear sight of the route and the end. ¡Queremos ser más!"