“UMKC Feels Like Home”

Photo credit:  Janet Rogers, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

Cantú’s Goal is to Expand the Latina/Latino Studies Program

With a love for academia, Norma E. Cantú, Ph.D., has spent more than 30 years teaching and researching cultural issues for – and about – young women.

During that time, Cantú, professor of Latina/Latino Studies (LLS) and English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has taught at several universities and explored other countries in order to further her cultural research. She has trekked 500 miles to participate in a pilgrimage from France to Northern Spain. And, her research continues in other ways – research that she freely shares.

Cantú has a particular interest in Latina rites of passage, Chicana feminist epistemologies, border studies and cultural production. Her research led to a documentary film broadcast on PBS, which provided a historical and cultural studies perspective on the long-standing, traditional rite of passage in Laredo, Tex.

Having grown up in Laredo, a border community home to extremes of wealth and poverty, Cantú understands the value in embracing your culture and in celebrating traditions.

Cantu studies Los matachines, a dance tradition in Laredo that celebrates two religious festivals – Christmas and Easter. A third secular and Americanized festival was influenced by Laredo’s Mexican American community and became the celebration now known as “Las Marthas,” one of the largest celebrations of George Washington’s birthday in the country. This coming out, invitation-only event is for Mexican American daughters of the Society of Martha Washington. Often, Nuevo Laredo – the Mexican sister city of Laredo – is involved.

Prior to the airing of the 2014 Las Marthas documentary, Cantu urged people to watch with an open mind, but to also examine their personal participation in rituals or rites of passage.

“Documentaries are designed to present a slice of life, to tell stories of people – in this case of two young 18-year-olds – to an audience who may be unfamiliar with the subject matter. Las Marthas fulfills this goal beautifully,” said Cantú.

The celebration takes place each February and is a spectacular event for the families with gowns designed and produced for each girl costing from $15,000 to $30,000. Girls must apply, submitting letters from sponsors, and all members of the Society must agree that the girl can participate.

“This is an important part of the social fabric in the two cities, and elite families have their daughters participate,” said Cantú. “However, I believe that girls should not lose themselves in this celebration.”

Cantú’s research includes literature, folklore and Latina studies. She was one of the founders of CantoMundo, a workshop that provides a forum for Latina and Latino poets . More than 67 applied for the eight available slots for the workshop held last July at the University of Texas in Austin.

As Cantú begins her second year at UMKC, she continues to work with Dr. Miguel Carranza, professor of sociology and Latina/Latino Studies director, to offer the newly approved minor, to develop a graduate certificate and a major in Latina/Latino Studies and to increase student enrollment and retention.

“The (Latina/Latino) community in KC area grew exponentially as people settled in the west side and worked on the railroad for more than 100 years. The university was not available to the population,” said Cantú. “That is changing now, and the community is an important part of our university.

“Ultimately, the goal for the program is to offer an undergraduate, then graduate degree in Latino Studies,” said Cantú. “This will prepare students to go into any field—law, medicine, psychology, education—with a strong understanding of the Latina/Latino reality in the United States.”

Cantú is settling into her new university, working to transform academics in her area, to improve retention and to continue to support and serve as a mentor for the Avanzando Scholars.

“UMKC feels like home,” concluded Cantú.

|Wandra Brooks Green, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

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