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5 Questions with Faculty: Gabriel Hetland

Gabriel Hetland stands upon the shore of Tamales Bay in California. (Photo by Karin Shankar)

ALBANY, N.Y. (Oct. 31, 2019) — Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies and a faculty affiliate in Sociology. He recently received the Rochester Committee on Latin America’s 2020 annual White Dove Award "for outstanding leadership and service in the cause of human rights in Latin America.” He came to UAlbany in the Fall of 2015.

What are you working on now?

I'm finishing up my book manuscript, which deals with the question of democracy in Latin America. The book is specifically about the conditions under which participatory democracy — in which ordinary people don't just vote in elections but make real decisions about things that matter to their lives (like local budgets) — is possible.

I'm excited about the book's central argument, which is that participatory democracy can succeed in conditions we wouldn't normally expect. My research shows that, just as right-wing hegemony can force the left to change how it behaves, leftist hegemony can have the same effect on the right.

What made you decide to pursue your field?

I became interested in Latin America in high school when I started reading Noam Chomsky books and articles that my dad had around the house. I learned about the frankly awful history of U.S. policy in Latin America, with the United States regularly acting to support dictators and overthrow democratically elected governments in the region. That really got me interested in Latin America, since I felt I had to learn more to understand why my government was doing these horrible things and what might be done to change that. That interest then expanded from being about U.S. policy in Latin America to being about Latin American politics in and of itself, which is what my work focuses on through the present.

Who is someone who influenced you?

Edward Said. He's one of the greatest public intellectuals of the 20th and early 21st centuries. He did pioneering work in the field of comparative literature, showing amongst other things how central empire and imperialism was to 19th century British literature and culture. But more than anything it was his careful work on the question of Palestine that spoke to me, and his refusal to just be a quiet academic in the ivory tower. It took real courage for him to engage this issue, and speak out against U.S. policy in the Middle East more generally.

He set an example of rigorous, critical scholarship and public engagement that I continue to aspire to, because I think the biggest challenge not just for my fields but more generally is how intellectuals can have public impact on the issues that matter the most. There are lots of obstacles to public engagement, including the pressures of academic publishing and promotion and more generally the political climate, but I think it's of critical importance for scholars to not only write about the world but actively engage in social struggles to create a more just and equitable world.

If you weren’t a university teacher, what would you be doing?

I'm half joking, but I'd be a tornado chaser. When I was younger I became totally fascinated with tornadoes and for a number of years thought very seriously about becoming a tornado chaser. I even looked into meteorology programs in places like Oklahoma!

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

I regularly read novels. The last I read was Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which deals with colonial India. It provides what you could say is a very "colorful" picture of a young boy's adventures in India, which thinkers like Edward Said have shown was deeply embedded in British and other forms of colonialism. It's a beautifully written, fascinating and troubling book.

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