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People of the Center Feature Series

The Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies is proud to share our “People of the Center” Feature Series, where we profile students, faculty, alumni and allies that are emblematic of the strength of our program. This feature series is meant to give you the inside scoop on contemporary, innovative research from our undergraduate and graduate students; to showcase the rigorous research and service work conducted by our diverse faculty; and finally to illustrate the invaluable support provided by community partners and allies. Behind all of that are the people that infuse unique passions and experiences in the ways that they strengthen our program. With a history and community as large as ours, we hope that this series introduces you to new people and forms new connections!

“People of the Center” Feature Series with Silvia Sanchez

It is our pleasure to introduce Silvia Sanchez, a first-year PhD student in the Department of Anthropology and a recipient of two 2016 Tinker Field Research Grants from CLACS.

Silvia Sanchez

Aron Muci, CLACS: Can you share some details about yourself?

Silvia Sanchez: I am a graduate student in anthropology, and I am in my second semester of the PhD program. I grew up in Guatemala City. I became interested in anthropology at an early age…I think seventeen…and I completed my undergraduate degree in anthropology in Guatemala. During that time I became interested in studying the Ch’orti’ people and region. That’s how I started to read lots of papers by Dr. Brent Metz. After finishing my undergraduate degree in 2012, I worked at an NGO for a year and a half. Eventually, I contacted [Dr. Metz], sent him a couple of papers, and now I am here.

Muci: Are you engaged in any projects or do you have one on the horizon?

Sanchez: I have two big projects. The one I just finished is my master’s thesis. It was about the network of development workers in the Ch’orti’ region. I had been exposed to the Ch’orti’ area in 2012 when I did aid work/field work with families living in one village. My concern back then was poverty. How do people live in poverty? And I found that that people do the best they can with what they have. It was pretty simple. I also noticed that they were exposed to, or the beneficiary of, all of these development projects. It was overwhelming for me to see all of these signs, all of these logos, all these humanitarian projects for agriculture, development, education, healthcare…anything you can imagine. There are just a lot of resources being channeled to this region. So, for my master’s thesis, I wanted to explore that side. What are the perspectives of the people that work for these projects? And so I spent 8 weeks in the summer of 2016 in Guatemala doing ethnographic field work, interviewing people in the area with the Tinker Field Research Grant. My question to them was, “why doesn’t it seem to work?” And the reasons I received were because projects are very unstable––they last six months, people change jobs quickly, and they leave the community before anything happens.

My next project is my dissertation. I am going to do an ethnographic study of the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security. I am becoming more interested in studying medical anthropology, and it seems understudied in Guatemala. I did some archival research in November of last year as part of another Tinker Field Research Grant.

Muci: What are the topics, issues, themes, etc. that motivate your academic work? Alternatively, what passions or convictions motivate your research?

Sanchez: A belief that everyone deserves good opportunities in life––that everyone deserves to be healthy. That motivates me. I really want to understand social justice and inequality. What causes it to prevail? I became interested in studying medical anthropology because there are some conceptual tools that will be useful. One concept is the analysis of narratives. In medical anthropology suffering and patient experiences are defined in terms of how people tell stories. That really provides a perspective that is not that well known.

Muci: How have you managed to intersect anthropology, medicine, and Latin American Studies? 

Sanchez: When you study the history of medical institutions in Latin America, you find that they are not always that related to what we think as health today. In colonial times it was more related to religion, altruism, charity, etc. Hospitals were run by religious orders where people came to die. And later, with independence movements, other things come up. But it always has to do with what we conceive of as moral or fair. As a result, colonial and modern institutions are often exclusionary. 

In the case of Guatemala, health care institutions are not cohesive. There is no holistic design; they are just pieces of what has been left over time. People are doing the best they can with the resources that they have. But it’s very segregated. You can tell who gets sick of what depending on their identities––whether they are indigenous or not, live in urban or rural areas, what kinds of jobs they have, or how much money they have to spend. What I am trying to do is study this one healthcare institution. It’s a leftover of a time when people fought for labor rights. Only people with certain kinds of jobs have access to it. In a way, it is a type of segregation. But it offers services that other institutions do not provide. So, I am going to study how patients and medical professionals negotiate decisions, treatment, healing, etc.

Muci: In your time at KU, what have you learned that might help other students succeed?

Sanchez: There are a lot of opportunities at KU, but the details aren’t always clear. You have to get connected to find what you need. I suggest going to workshops and seeking out graduate resources before it’s too late!

Muci: What are some highlights of your time at KU?

Sanchez: My advisor, Dr. Brent Metz. He has been a great help in terms of writing and navigating the process. The Latin American Graduate Organization was integral in the beginning. Teaching is fun––it’s a lot of fun. I think of it as a way to learn American culture.

Muci: How has CLACS impacted you?

Sanchez: I would not have been able to complete my masters with the Tinker Grants. In addition, you don’t always get the courses you need in your discipline, but CLACS offers a regional perspective that is really important. CLACS also helps you connect with all sorts of people in a variety of disciplines. That’s actually how I met one of my committee members, Melissa Birch. Getting connected has been very impactful.

Muci: What’s next after graduation?

Sanchez: Oh wow…that seems really far away. I’ve got four years. I hope to do more research! I am going to look for jobs everywhere in Latin America.

Muci: Anything else that you would like to say before we end?

Sanchez: Laura Herlihy is awesome! Her research and work ethic are admirable.

“People of the Center” Feature Series with Rachel Denney

​It is our pleasure to introduce Rachel Denney, a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and a recipient of a 2016 Tinker Field Research Grant and the Stansifer Fellowship from CLACS. 

Rachel Denney

Aron Muci, CLACS: Can you share some details about yourself?

Rachel Denney: I am a 4th year doctorate student in WGSS with an emphasis in Political Science, earning a certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. I was born and raised in the Kansas City area and I currently live in the KC suburbs with my husband, close to the Edwards campus. I originally came to KU for my MA in Global and International Studies.

Muci: Are you engaged in any projects or do you have one on the horizon?

Denney: I passed my comprehensive exams in the fall, and I am submitting my dissertation proposal soon. My dissertation looks at the role of NGOs in Central America and the Caribbean and how they are interacting with the governments of developing countries. There has been a lot of critique of the NGO sector, because in some places it is more powerful than the government. I am examining that relationship, specifically NGOs that promote education for girls and women. Education is generally seen as under the purview of the government––it’s their job––but some NGOs will either go and work with the government or set up parallel systems. So, in a lot of ways, they are providing a necessary service while not being subject to the same scrutiny.

I am also working on an open access Haitian Creole textbook with Prof. Cécile Accilien. So, I have been able to learn a lot about open access, copyright law, and all that fun stuff. We are trying to make it accessible to traditional undergraduate students as well as people who might be traveling to Haiti and are in need of basic vocabulary. It’s a fun project where I get to develop a lot of skills.

Muci: What are the topics, issues, themes, etc. that motivate your academic work? Alternatively, what passions or convictions motivate your research?

Denney: I’ve always been interested in poverty in the developing world, and what are the underlying causes. Before I came to KU, I worked at an international NGO…which provided sponsorship for children in developing countries. I became interested in this system, why poverty exists, why the cycle continues, and what can be done about it. I also focus on the unequal distribution of aid across groups of children and women in indigenous communities.

Muci: How have you managed to intersect WGSS, Political Science, and Latin American Studies? 

Denney: Those three subject areas draw on several issues that I am passionate about. I was a political science major in my undergrad, and that got me interested in institutions and why they sometimes fail. I originally focused my studies on Haiti before expanding to Central America. In my time working for an NGO, I got to see how indigenous groups are being impacted differently and how the U.S. involvement in the Caribbean has helped and inadvertently––sometimes intentionally–– perpetuated systems of inequality. So, notions of imperialism, which ties into WGSS for its focus on women, gender, and marginalized groups that experience systemic injustice.

Muci: How did you decide to work in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Denney: I started out studying Haiti because I had a good friend who left to go on an extended mission trip in the country. I became interested in the region because of her experiences. While she did amazing work, I began to wonder why her type of work was necessary. Why is Haiti seemingly reliant on external help? I saw the same pattern repeating across Central America.

Muci: In your time at KU, what have you learned that might help other students succeed?

Denney: KU has amazing resources. The library system, in particular, is phenomenal. The librarians are so excited to help students with whatever they are working on. So, don’t hesitate to reach out to librarians, because they are awesome. I have also come into contact with some great faculty mentors. The faculty have always been willing to go the extra mile to help me out. So, don’t hesitate to reach out to faculty; the vast majority are excited to help students pursue their interests. Lastly, other grad students; they have been a fantastic resource because it can sometimes be intimidating to go to “authority” figures.

Muci: What are some highlights of your time at KU and how has CLACS impacted you?

Denney: I’ve been really fortunate through the Center for Latin American and Caribbean studies to do research and study abroad. I’ve been to Haiti. I just went to Guatemala and the Dominican Republic this past summer. CLACS has been extremely generous in funding those research trips. 

Another “highlight” is being able to collaborate with faculty and courses that speak to my interests. At the graduate level, faculty are willing to tailor courses to the students, so I have been able to explore my interests while learning things I didn’t know about.

Muci: What’s next after graduation?

Denney: I had my first chance to teach a solo course this past semester. I really enjoyed being in class, and I would be thrilled to stay in academia. I would also be interested to go back to the non-profit sector, having learned some of the pitfalls. I am better prepared to go back into that sector to make some changes as well as meaningful, sustainable development. Otherwise, I am keeping my options open. I love academia, but the job market is fairly tight these days. I am open to anything that comes my way. 

Muci: Anything else that you would like to say before we conclude?

Denney: I would be so ashamed of myself if I didn't mention my faculty advisor, Prof. Hannah Britton, who is in political science and WGSS. She has not only been fantastic at nurturing my academic development, but she has also been so supportive of all graduate students. The same goes for Cécile Accilien; she’s also been fantastic.

The WGSS and Political Science faculty have been really amazing, pushing us to develop professionally. Being a graduate student can be a difficult journey––it’s very stressful––but they have been great about promoting self-care and securing funding when we need it. And that includes faculty from other departments like Prof. Giselle Anatol and Prof. Santa Arias.

One of the things that I love about KU is that there is always something going on. There’s always something to be involved in––a fascinating speaker or a campus activity. So, you are never bored and have the opportunity to make great connections.

“People of the Center” Feature Series with Alexa Zepp

It is our pleasure to introduce Alexa Zepp, a senior in the Department of Visual Arts who is also earning minors in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Art History. Alexa has traveled abroad to Latin American countries twice in her time at KU, and she has used those experiences to influence her latest exhibition “Yulu Nani Dawanka: Keeper of the Trees,” which is supported by CLACS, the Department of Visual Arts, and KU Study Abroad.

Aron Muci, CLACS: Can you share some details about yourself?

Alexa Zepp: My name is Alexa Zepp, and I am originally from St. Louis, Missouri. I am a senior at KU, graduating with a major in painting from the Department of Visual Arts as well as a double minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and Art History.

Muci: What brought you to KU?

Zepp: I had no real plan to come here. In the beginning, I was interested in going to an art institute. I was pretty sure that I wanted to go to Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI). My high school painting instructor was an alumna of KU, and she recommended that I at least check out KU, because there is more to offer for the entire college experience. I knew I didn’t want to come here, but I thought that I should schedule a visit since I was going to be close. After visiting KCAI, I said, “I want to go here!” And then we came to KU, and I said, “I am never going to an art institute!” I liked the campus a lot––it was really pretty. There was so much school spirit that was strangely appealing to me. 

Muci: What sorts of mediums do you work with, and why?

Zepp: I never know what to call myself. I enjoy many mediums, but I always enjoy painting. I started focusing on painting solely toward the end of my sophomore year, but it just felt limiting––I just wanted more. I couldn’t fully express what I wanted. So, I started researching artists that were working with mixed media, and I started to experiment with things that took me out of my comfort zone. With that said, I love textiles: I love quilting, sewing, and dying fabrics. I also love printmaking, because I am very process-oriented. I am not concerned with products. Of course, I want to make good art, but I am not as concerned with the product as much as enjoying the process. 

Now, the mediums I work with are pretty much anything that makes a mark on the canvas; I don’t really follow standards, because I am more interested in experimenting with what I have been told is wrong or correct. I want to explore for myself.

I sometimes collect random materials, stuff that may not be “artist-grade,” and I just thrust it at the canvas and respond to it. As someone who is somewhat insecure of the unknown, this challenges me to put aside my control and put myself in a place of responding to something. I find that the art is better when I do that.

Muci: How have you found ways to mix Visual Arts and Latin American and Caribbean Studies?

Zepp: I had the totally awesome experience of studying abroad twice at KU, which was one of the reasons that I chose to come here. The first time was as a sophomore in Ecuador; it was five months that were really eye-opening to study, travel, and improve my Spanish. This past summer I went on Laura Herilhy’s Nicaragua trip. She is a complete advocate for her work, and she strongly encouraged me to go on the trip to Nicaragua. It was the type of opportunity where you have to be very mature and in control of yourself, because it’s not necessarily the most fun study abroad opportunity. It’s hard. You are traveling and living with an indigenous group, which is a severe culture shock that makes many things difficult. I was very glad to have waited to go on that trip.

While there, since I wasn’t engaged in any research, I decided to teach English. I got on the radio and announced that I would be teaching english classes; the next day I had over 60 people come, most of whom were just interested to see an American teach the language and learn. It was difficult to teach my first language, in my second language, while learning a third. I had so much fun; it was so hard, but so rewarding.

When I got home, I had to figure out how to turn that experience into art. It was very overwhelming. But once I was able to start focusing, I took everything that I saw and tried to turn that into art. I began researching, and then started to sketch connected to what I learned about the culture, political situation, and people. Most everything has painting as a base. In addition, I have done a lot of linoleum carvings of iconic imagery of the culture, like houses on stilts, a lobster, and several political symbols. From there I have been printing and layering, using different materials to connote the depth of the Miskitu culture. I learned weaving while in Nicaragua, so I have incorporated some of that into my projects as well.

Muci: What are the topics, issues, themes, etc. that motivate your academic work? Alternatively, what passions or convictions motivate your research?

Zepp: I am still exploring all of the different facets of the Miskitu culture in my work. I am starting to branch out to other Latin American languages and cultures, so it’s been a building process. I am really interested in indigenous folklore, which for the Miskitu is the mermaid and the lobster diver.

Muci: What are your current projects, or what would you like to do next?

Zepp: In a few weeks I have a show, “Yulu Nani Dawanka: Keeper of the Trees,” which will explore the significance, pride, and identity built around the environment in the Miskitu culture. It’s on April 28, 2017, 5-9 p.m. at the Culinaria in Lawrence, KS. The venue is graciously donating their space and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Department of Visual Arts, and KU Study Abroad are supporting the show. At the show will be traditional Nicaraguan cuisine, Miskitu music, and informal lectures about the people and cultures in the region.

Muci: What has been a highlight of your time at KU?

Zepp: I cannot pinpoint an event. I think finding a home in the Department of Visual Arts––I practically live there. Because students are in long studio classes, we end up interacting with each other and teachers very often. It ends up feeling like a home that many others can’t find.

Muci: In your time at KU, what have you learned that might help other students succeed?

Zepp: High risk is high reward. Take advantage of cool opportunities––what’s the worst that’s going to happen? Lastly, I think your degree means nothing if it is not backed by hard work. If you are not really learning and developing, the degree won’t be as special. In art, that’s a little more obvious, but I think it applies to other areas.

Muci: How has CLACS impacted you?

Zepp: Consistency. It’s not my home, but I have learned so much through the classes offered. The Center has been consistent for support and great people. In the times that I have interacted with people from the Center, I have always had a great time that feels personal.

Muci: What’s next after graduation?

Zepp: I have always wanted to backpack throughout South America. So, I’ll be doing that as well as participating in various art residencies along the way. I have a four-month trip planned. I am starting in Argentina, where I will spend a couple of weeks. I will then travel to Chile, where I will be a part of a four-week art residency program. Next is Bolivia. In Peru I will join another four-week residency program; this time in a Kichwa community in the jungle, where I will be sort of a recluse, but also teach some art classes. I’ll visit ‘my people’ in Ecuador before arriving in Colombia for another four-week residency program in an indigenous town, where I will be exchanging art practices with the local community.

Muci: Anything else that you would like to say before we end?

Zepp: I’d like to give a shout out to Joan Marie. She’s not at KU or in Kansas; she’s my high school art teacher. She’s somebody that is always available to help me with anything. She’s a wonderful artist, and someone I aspire to be.

Of course, Laura Herlihy. She’s somebody who is a tireless advocate that has developed my love for culture and language.

Lastly, Mike McCaffrey and Ruth Bowman, who are two instructors that have fostered me throughout my time at KU. They are both really dedicated to their students and encourage them to do their best work.

If you, or a someone you know, would like to participate in our feature series, please contact CLACS Communication Assistant, Aron Muci.


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