The University of Arizona inspires indigenous female leadership in Latin America

Feb. 25, 2020

Recipients of the Study of the United States Institute for Women Leaders meet with Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern on Feb.12, 2020, in Washington D.C.


Twenty-one Indigenous and Afro-descendent young female leaders met last week with members of the U.S. House of Representatives, in Washington D.C.  Ages 18 to 24, these college students are part of a long endeavor led by the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) which seeks to empower future generations of Latin American female leaders.

With this cohort, CLAS celebrates 12 years of leading the UArizona Study of the United States Institute (SUSI), and promoting the professional and personal development of over 500 Latin American students. With an annual budget of $800,000 provided by the U.S. Department of State, and in partnership with the Institute of Training and Development (ITD) in Massachusetts, SUSI seeks to promote deep understanding of the U.S. and enhancement of leadership skills among women from underrepresented communities.

“Indigenous and Afro-descendant women have been historically excluded; their voices should be part of the public dialogue and take part in policy making throughout the Latin American region,” said Marcela Vásquez-León, director of the Center for Latin American Studies and the UArizona SUSI program.

Under the leadership of Alberto Arenas, from the College of Education, the program started in 2008 with Bolivia and included young women and men. As the years progressed, the institute incorporated more countries, making it truly international and multicultural. In 2018, it shifted to a women’s only institute with a focus on feminism and gender issues.

“A women’s only institute creates a space that is new for most participants, where they are free to express themselves about issues that range from understanding overlapping systems of discrimination and gender-based violence, to the importance of transnational feminism and solidarity. Interaction with several UA young women’s groups and with UA female student mentors is an opportunity to learn how these issues are addressed in a US university setting,” said Vasquez-Leon.

 “SUSI is an opportunity to show what I can contribute. I will have a more committed role with society,” says Paulina Irene Velazquez Ferrufino, a SUSI participant who in February was named Peace Ambassador of Bolivia for the Global Peace Chain, an international organization supported by the United Nations.

Velazquez Ferrufino, 20, postulated to this charge the day before she traveled to participate in SUSI. She says that this coincidence was timely, as it helped her network with other young Latin American leaders and plan bigger projects for the year she will hold the position.

Representing Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru, these young leaders come from diverse backgrounds. They are college students of law, civil engineering, international business, ecotourism, education, sociology and others, and were selected by their country’s embassies due to their community involvement.

“SUSI creates a network of contacts that allows you to solve problems,” says Dayana Blanco Quiroga, a wide-eyed student from west-central Bolivia.

Blanco’s town, Turco Marca, experienced deep division when copper mining companies started operating in the nearby mountains. She frequently joins her father in human rights workshops for indigenous people and conciliation efforts and studies international trade and law in the University of Oruro.

During their time in Tucson, participants met with 19 UArizona faculty members for workshops, lectures, training and roundtable discussions. Each year, CLAS hires professors from the departments of History, Education, Africana Studies, Latin American Studies, the School of Law, Anthropology, the Udall Center, among others, to expand the potential of SUSI participants. Participants learn about feminism and the struggle of diverse women’s movements in the U.S. Blanco says that these encounters opened her perspectives on how she could help her community and share valuable information with neighbors and authorities.

 “Professors here are very accessible. They answer all your questions and offer solutions. I feel more positive about going back. I didn’t know that universities had these tools to make claims or take these issues to an international level,” said Blanco.

CLAS has worked since 2008 to offer SUSI participants a broad view of regional issues and applied tools for professional development and network building.  Students learn about environmental sustainability in arid environments, receive hands-on training in digital story-telling, visit the Tohono O’odham Reservation and the U.S.-Mexico border.

Participants also visit nonprofit organizations, humanitarian aid groups and local businesses of Southern Arizona, where they discuss the power of localized action and engage with the Tucson community.

For Analuiza Quiñones Mina, Anita, being a leader means being able to solve problems in the community. She is 23 years old and has five years being the legal representative of the Textile Production Association “María Chiquinquirá” in Guayaquil, Ecuador —a cooperative named after the 18-century female activist and first free slave of Ecuador.

“Many people look as inspirational that a young woman, like me, can achieve these objectives and can get to higher (entities) such as SUSI. That is inspiration for the community,” said Anita.

As a young Afro-Ecuadorian woman, she is glad that SUSI allows her to make black women of her country visible. Exchanging experiences and knowledge with other participants of the SUSI program is another catalyst to advance equality.

“Many of them (SUSI participants) have no reference of Afro women: they could be this reference for future generations in their country!” she said.

From the beginning, the UArizona SUSI program has fostered a space for alliances. As a result of their encounter, one of the first cohorts started an organization for the territorial defense of Indigenous peoples in Paraguay and Bolivia that stands to this day.

“We encourage the creation of networks throughout the continent,” said Vásquez-León.

The program facilitates collaborations between the UArizona and Latin American universities, opening up opportunities for international research and partnerships. Also, while in Tucson, program participants are paired with UArizona student mentors. “Several of the mentors have visited SUSI students in Latin America, cementing long-lasting friendships and collaborations,” Vásquez-León said.

Although SUSI participants come to learn about diversity and democracy in the U.S., many teachers and mentors believe that it is the U.S. and its people that benefit the most from the encounter with the young women. They view with admiration the commitment of these young women to their communities and the promise they hold as agents of change.

When asked what she will bring back to her home country after this experience, Dayana Blanco pauses, and then replies, she will not forget the value of her own identity and culture.

 “The world could learn so much from us —you could learn so much from us,” she said.