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Sociology’s Chinchilla Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

Published: May 15, 2012

Norma Stoltz Chinchilla, professor and co-chair of the Department of Sociology, recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Central American Studies by the Lozano-Long Institute for Latin American Studies (LLILAS) and the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Chinchilla was recognized at the 2012 Lozano-Long Conference under the theme “Central Americans and the Latino/a Landscape: New Configurations of Latino/a Studies.”

Associate Director of the Institute for Latin American Studies Arturo Arias presented Chinchilla with the honor in recognition of her award-winning book Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles published in 2001 and her co-founding of the Guatemala Information Center, a human rights group that provided refuge to Guatemalans in the early 1980s.

“I don’t usually care to be singled out but it is nice to be appreciated,” said Chinchilla, a member of the university since 1983 and co-director of Latin American Studies. “When you work hard at many different tasks, you often feel invisible. The award came as a complete surprise. I would say it was a speechless moment but I’m never speechless. We have so many amazing people here at CSULB and I think it is important that they are recognized by awards from outside groups like these.”

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The Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Center for Mexican American Studies center at the University of Texas are interdisciplinary units that integrate more than 30 academic departments across the university.

“Lozano-Long ILASI is one of the leading Latin American studies institutes in the U.S. and MAS is a very important center in the field of Mexican-American Studies,” she explained. “The institute and the center at U. of Texas-Austin came together for the first time at this conference. This is pretty historic.”

Arias emphasized Chinchilla’s combination of scholarship and activism in relation to Central America. She first went to Guatemala as a Fulbright Fellow in 1965 and became involved in various groups advocating for human rights and an end to dictatorships in Central America. She was part of an observer delegation for elections in Nicaragua in the 1990s and has served as a consultant to various women’s groups in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador. She serves as an expert witness in immigration cases of Guatemalans in the U.S. and received the CSULB award for Outstanding Scholarly and Creative Activity in 1996-97 and the award for Faculty Community Service in 2007. She is the author of Our Utopias: Guatemalan Women of the 20th Century in 2002, and co-author (with Lorena Carrillo) of From Urban Elite to Peasant Organizing: Agendas, Accomplishments, and challenges of Thirty-plus Years of Guatemalan Feminism in 2010. She has traveled up the Rio Negro River in the Brazilian Amazon twice, the last time in 2005; and taught at UC Irvine before joining the faculty at CSULB. She received her Ph.D. in sociology with a minor in Latin American Studies from the University of Wisconsin.

Chinchilla feels she was singled out for the award because of her career’s balance of scholarship and activism. “Scholarship and activism nourish each other and I have tried to balance them both since I first started,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy because each makes demands. But for me, they nurture each other. My research is influenced by my activism and my activism is influenced by my research.”

Norma Stoltz Chinchilla
Norma Stoltz Chinchilla

A good example of this mutual influence is the book Chinchilla authored with Nora Hamilton in 2001, Seeking Community in a Global City: Guatemalans and Salvadorans in Los Angeles, now regarded as a “foundational text” in the field of Central American studies. The book won the 2002 Best Book Award in Race/Ethnicity and Globalization for the Race, Ethnicity and Politics section of the American Political Science Association.

When she was first approached by a publisher at a conference to write the book, she thought the idea would never sell. She was asked about the book’s potential readership and Chinchilla couldn’t think of an answer. “Well, we can’t publish a book for just a few hundred people,” said the publisher. But teachers and social workers urged them to write it and, when it was complete, Chinchilla remembers CSULB students from Central America recognizing their parents in the text. “They told us their parents didn’t always tell them what had happened to them but they always wanted to understand,” she said. “That got to our hearts.”

Chinchilla never dreamed of the book’s eventual impact. “We didn’t think it would be such a big deal,” she recalled. “Well it was a big deal. In fact, I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be to write. It’s a good thing when authors don’t know how difficult it will be to write a particular text.”

Chinchilla also pointed with pride to the Guatemalan Information Center founded in 1982 and disbanded in 1990. “At the time, it was the only L.A.-based organization that explored what was happening in Guatemalan politics,” she recalled. “It offered support to the Guatemalans who were coming. We hosted cultural and educational events as well as worked with the sanctuary movement organized by churches. We helped to change U.S. foreign policy eventually.”

Chinchilla is glad she made the commitment to Central American research at CSULB. “Although the number of Central American immigrants to the U.S. may be small when compared to Mexican immigration, Central American immigration has had a big impact on American politics,” she explained. “They bring something different to the nation. Their historical experience is different. Their participation has forced political representation to think of the Latino community as more diverse than thought.”

–Richard Manly