September 15-October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month in the U.S. (In case you were wondering, it starts on September 15 to coincide with the Independence Days of several Latin American countries.) The new website Lathisms.org helps us in the math community celebrate by sharing a photo and brief biography of a Latina, Latino, or Hispanic mathematician every day during this month. I’ve seen a few familiar names and faces and a lot of new people to learn about.
Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela Harris, Alicia Prieto Langarica, and Gabriel Sosa are the mathematicians behind Lathisms. Harris and Sosa were gracious enough to chat with me last week about what inspired them to create Lathisms and why they think it’s an important project. Below is an abridged transcript of our conversation. (Note: This is an AMS blog, and the AMS has been supportive of Lathisms, but the AMS was not involved in my decision to write about the site.)
Evelyn Lamb: What inspired the creation of Lathisms?
Gabriel Sosa: It was during February, it was Black History month. I was asking people whether we knew of a poster featuring prominent African American mathematicians. The AMS has this really nice poster about women in math. When I started in grad school, I was like, how many famous women mathematicians have there been? If you look back in time there were not that many. Of course it’s because women were not allowed to do math back then. But there are so many examples, so many amazing people on this poster. I thought, what a wonderful thing. Maybe there should be one for African Americans too. And Pam said there isn’t one for Latinos. So she said, “Let’s do one!” [Editor’s note: I published a roundup of resources for learning about African American mathematicians on this blog in February.]
Pamela Harris: It’s one of those things that sort of happened over Facebook. Alicia, Gabriel, Alexander, and I have met each other at multiple different conferences, and we work together amongst ourselves doing research. It became this natural thing, another project we could do. I think what was really beautiful about it was that without even intending it to be this way, we found two Hispanic women and two Hispanic men to do this project. It was this idea that sprung up from having Gabriel ask this question, does such a poster exist?
EL: So will there be a poster at the end, or will it all be online?
PH: The original idea was for us to get information out as soon as possible. Alexander has a connection at the AMS. He has written for the Graduate Student Blog, and he is an editor for Notices of the AMS. Immediately we knew that Alexander was somebody who had a nice connection and good rapport with the AMS. We knew that maybe we could write a short article featuring some mathematicians.
The AMS was extremely supportive of this endeavor from the start. It was pretty incredible. We found out that the cover October issue of Notices has always been reserved to feature the city of JMM. This year, they put part of our collage of photos there. The fact that they went above and beyond to feature the Latinos and Hispanics in our community this year has been an extremely positive experience. They really stepped up and made this be something that adds value to the community. We are extremely thankful for them for their support.
GS: I was pleasantly surprised. I never expected that the moment we asked to do an article, they would say, oh, go ahead. They replied back that same day two hours later.
EL: I haven’t gone through carefully. Are the people you feature all working in the US?
PH: That was the idea. The reason for that is not that we are trying to not feature other mathematicians, but the idea for Hispanic Heritage Month is really to celebrate the culture and accomplishments and contributions of US-based Latinos and Hispanics. Solely for that purpose, and because we organized it for that particular month, we focused on featuring US-based mathematicians.
EL: I saw some discussion on Facebook about this, so I have a burning question: how do you pronounce the website name?
GS: Lat-isms. The “h” is silent in Spanish.
EL: What are your goals for the project this year? Are you going to do something similar next year? How will that evolve?
PH: The goal for this project to begin with was for us to inspire a new generation of students and junior faculty while being able to honor those who have come before and have done a phenomenal amount of research and a phenomenal amount of mentoring and service in the math community and specifically for underrepresented mathematicians and students. That was really the goal for us, to have this platform on which we could feature these mathematicians and their contributions to this community.
For next year the goal is to continue working on this. It is a pretty extensive time requirement to put this together. The plan is moving forward to maybe not every year feature this many mathematicians but for sure to have some subset of the month covered by mathematicians, and possibly bring in some more junior up-and-coming leaders in the field. There are a lot of phenomenal junior mathematicians that are maybe not getting the amount of press that they deserve for whatever reason. We thought that moving forward that’s something we want to provide.
EL: Have you gotten much feedback from people on it?
PH: Absolutely. Through the website there is a contact us link. We’ve gotten numerous emails. One of the most recent ones was a math professor who mentioned that they love our website, they wish that this had existed before, that he actually has been looking for a poster that features more diverse mathematicians.
Most of the comments have been complete support for the project, very thankful that we spent time doing this. That’s great. We never did this in order to be thanked. In my opinion it was a project that I needed. At this point in my career, I need to be reminded that I can achieve the goals I have set for myself, that there are people that look like me that have had similar life experiences as mine that are serving as great role models. Not only was it for us to share these mathematicians, it was very fulfilling for us to learn about the phenomenal work that our mentors are doing.
GS: To add to that, the person who sent this email mentioned that Juan Meza visited his institution at one point. He said it was life changing because they have a 25% Latino student body. For them to see him and hear his personal story, besides his research, was something that changed the way they thought about it.
EL: When you were in undergrad and grad school, did you have Hispanic and Latino mathematicians to look up to?
PH: Gabriel and I had very, very different experiences. I did my undergraduate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first time I actually met a Latina or Latino who had a Ph.D., it was a dear friend of mine, Alejandra Alvarado. I met her five years ago. I was at a women’s conference. I was presenting a poster on my research, and she came up to me and said, “Are you Latina?” I said, “I’m Mexican.” She said, “So am I.” I was like, “You have a math Ph.D.? There’s more of us? There’s more of us!” From there it really became like this small avalanche. I met Alejandra, then I met Maria Vega, who has also become a dear friend of mine. Then I met Erika Camacho, then Alicia and Gabriel and Alexander. it’s amazing how many phenomenal people we have. But it really did take a long time for me, being US-based, to have met some of my peers and some of my mentors. It was very late in my career.
GS: I think it’s a very big difference because Pam did her Ph.D. here and immigrated to the US very young. In the case of Alicia and me, we came here after undergrad, so obviously all our professors had been Latinos, so we knew it was achievable. For instance, I ended up here because one of my professors got his Ph.D. from Purdue. He said, “You should consider that place because I was Latino and I succeeded there. We know that you have everything that you need there to have a support system.” I’m always like, “Pam, how did you do it?” To me it’s hard to even imagine what would have happened if I had not had these people before telling me I should go there and do this.
PH: I did have mentors, they just did not happen to be Hispanic or Latino. My mentors were phenomenal, and clearly they pushed me in the right direction. Otherwise I would not have continued in mathematics. But in addition to having a good mentor, being able to see yourself in someone is extremely important. It’s something that I missed for a very long time. Having a community of peers and collaborators and colleagues that are members of underrepresented groups has really helped me grow not only as a mathematician, but also as a person.
It does give me a lot of pride, that even though I missed having Hispanic mentors I was able to succeed. But I think that’s the reason why we needed to do this kind of program. I don’t think it’s fair for someone to be as old as I was and not have known about Carlos Castillo-Chavez, or Erika Camacho. Featuring these mathematicians on this platform, what we’re doing is we’re reaching people at a much earlier age.
EL: Do you have recommendations of other resources for people to learn about Hispanic and Latino and Latina mathematicians, or resources for students in those groups?
PH: Alicia, myself, and Marco Martinez put together a list through the MAA. We have a page on their website solely dedicated to resources for students coming from underrepresented groups and faculty who work with those students. [Editor’s note: Find their list here.]
For me SACNAS [Society for Advancements of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science] has been a phenomenal organization that has always provided a great balance between diversity and pushing the boundaries of science. They really blend beautifully the idea that we can be proud of our culture and continue our traditions and love our heritage, but we can also be amazing leaders in science. Anytime I meet students I make sure they know about SACNAS.
GS: I was a member of SACNAS, and when I went to the annual conference for the first time my mind was blown. All of these amazing things are happening. You can still be you and still be amazing.
PH: For me that’s the best thing. You do not understand the amount of community building you make at a conference like that, how close you feel to people that are geographically thousands of miles away. That amount of community building is something that SACNAS provides that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
EL: Sometimes as a woman in math, you feel like have to act like a man, or try to hide your femininity to blend in with a more dominant culture. I’d imagine that happens for other groups as well. And not having to do that must be a really important thing.
PH: It’s very true. Sadly, I’ve had very negative experiences given that my name is Pamela Harris. Really, my name is not Pamela, it’s Pamela. Having immigrated to the United States at a very early age and the fact that maybe I don’t have much of an accent when I speak English, it’s very easy for people, when they talk to me on the phone or when they haven’t yet met me, not to realize that I’m not who they might imagine I am. I’ve had very negative experiences in job interviews. I show up and people’s jaws drop because I don’t embody in their mind what somebody with my name should look like. It is something that’s difficult. Also as a woman, we know there’s discrimination based on our name and our assumed gender. Having SACNAS to be able to go the annual conference and to not ever think about that is really refreshing, it’s freeing. And it allows us to build community, but also to focus on why we’re there, which is the science.
EL: I’d imagine this project helped you all meet new people and make more connections too.
PH: When we started thinking about this project and who we wanted to feature, of course prominent people come to mind: Erika Camacho, Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Ricardo Cortez, Richard Tapia, among many others. At the same time, what we wanted to do, and what we ended up doing, was reaching out to a large group of Hispanic mathematicians for them to give us input on who we should feature this year. We basically crowd-sourced.
Having a diverse group of people really provides us so many more learning opportunities. We should take advantage of that. We’re educators, we’re mathematicians, we’re scientists. It’s something I’m quite proud of our group for doing.
I think the greatest joy is to finally see the end product and get such positive feedback and such interest from the community at large about what we have done. It’s just been a very happy experience overall.