Stories from Our Community

Career of Research, Service in Latin America Brings Fr. Matthew Carnes to CLAS Stewardship

July 6, 2016

by Matthew Raab

In 1959, the Walsh School of Foreign Service opened the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), one of the first of its kind in the United States. On July 1, Father Matthew Carnes, S.J., took over the leadership as the new director of CLAS. Father Carnes brings a uniquely Georgetown perspective as both a dedicated Jesuit and political scientist focused on inequality and social welfare, a fitting union between central tenets of Georgetown’s identity.

“Since joining the Jesuits, some 24 years ago, I’ve deepened my bond with Latin America, working in soup kitchens and parish ministry in northern Mexico, in high schools and on retreats in Uruguay, and conducting research on labor and social policy in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. And perhaps most formatively, I worked for a year on post-hurricane reconstruction efforts in Honduras -- a project that involved accompanying communities as they rebuilt after literally losing everything. It is an experience that still lives powerfully in my heart.” Carnes said. “So now it feels like I have come full circle in starting at the Center for Latin American Studies, in that I have the opportunity to serve the region that has meant so much to me. And I get to do so as both a professor and a Jesuit, linking my focused academic vision with the world-embracing and life-transforming perspective of St. Ignatius."

Carnes will be stepping into his new role at CLAS as the latest chapter in a career dedicated to Latin America, stretching from his experiences in high school and as a young professional to his career as a professor. “Looking back on it now, I often think that it was Latin America that led me to my twin vocations -- as a Jesuit and as a professor. The region, and especially its people and their hopes and challenges, were my first love,” Carnes explained. “I travelled to Ecuador after sophomore year of high school, spending a summer working in the Andes on a community sanitation project. While there, I was welcomed by an incredible set of families, who cared for me almost as if I were their own son. I was inspired by their desire to improve their lives and those of their children, and I eventually found my way to their church, which was at the heart of the village and which united people in a shared vision of hope, even amidst poverty. Over the course of that summer, and a subsequent summer in Paraguay, I began asking questions -- why did these villages lack access to electricity, for example, or why was clean water so hard to come by? And what might be done, practically and politically, to improve things?”

“My experiences in Latin America started to open up these questions, about why we see these inequalities, what sort of political structures enable inclusion or cement exclusion into place,” Carnes explained. “You put that together with the religious questions, [and the fact] that I’d end up a Jesuit and a political scientist isn’t so surprising.”

At CLAS, he will look to harness his perspective and the resources at Georgetown to propel the center.

Father Carnes attended Georgetown's first-ever Latin American Summit, held for by the Alumni Association and Latin American Board, in Lima, Peru, in 2011. The summit included Georgetown alumni and friends of the University, along with Professor Erick Langer, a former director of CLAS.

“My own research focuses on a particular set of policies which play an important role in combatting poverty and inequality: labor policy and social policy,” Carnes said.

Now Carnes sees CLAS as particularly well equipped to have an impact in Latin America from its strong alumni community and natural home at Georgetown.

“We have this incredible opportunity as Georgetown and as a Jesuit university to embrace the region in a way that Jesuits have [for] a long time, which means crossing boundaries, moving across social classes, in a way that has profound respect for one another, a way that engages differences and engages culture in a rich way,” Carnes said. “One of the great things about CLAS is that we actually engage the region on every level, and we learn from the richness of the culture and the history, and Jesuits - one of my favorite characterizations of Jesuits is that Jesuits are brokers of culture - they know how to deal in various cultures.”

Carnes notes that "CLAS has tremendous prominence in the region, based on Georgetown's strong history and well-known identity in Latin America, stretching back to the early years of the University and deepened from the founding of SFS. In the last year, the SFS Dean's Office completed a rigorous eternal review process of the Center, which has sharpened our sense of new opportunities to work collaboratively across disciplines and engage the increasing pace of economic, political, and social change in the the region. In the coming year, I'm looking forward to leading a serious rethinking of the Center's efforts, drawing collaboratively on all CLAS constituents -- from faculty to students to staff and friends and supporters of the University -- in order to ensure that CLAS remains at the forefront of Latin American Studies."

It is precisely by spanning the normal academic disciplines that CLAS can be at its richest,” Carnes explains. “After all, you cannot understand contemporary politics in the region today if you don’t understand the complex history of each country. And you can often learn more from carefully listening to a Mexican corrido -- and appreciating the wild plays on words it employs -- than watching the evening news. I hope that by bringing together anthropology and sociology, Spanish and Portuguese, economics and history and political science, law and business, we can form a community of engaged scholars and citizens committed to the region.”

In addition to making connections among those studying Latin America, Carnes also looks forward to working on connections between Georgetown University and the region facilitated by CLAS.

“My hope is to be a bridge-builder, helping make connections among people interested in Latin America both inside and outside the University,” he said. “I’d love to see CLAS bring together the political and business communities, along with the arts and humanities, in an integral, holistic way to engage the region’s many promises and challenges.”

That outreach will include engagement with the broad array of alumni involved in the region.

“Georgetown has a marvelous group of alumni and friends in Latin America, and they are engaged in important roles in business, government, and NGOs. I look forward to meeting with them so that we can support their work through our research and teaching, but also so that we can learn from their expertise and experience.”

Fr. Carnes plans to increase direct outreach from CLAS to the region during the coming year. His current travel plans include a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he will meet with the current Vice-President Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, and to Colombia, where he will connect with alumni, leaders at partner universities, and visit Georgetown students working in internship and entrepreneurship ventures organized by CLAS and by the Beeck Center's Global Impacts Fellowship program. He is also hoping to visit Panama, Brazil, Mexico, and Costa Rica in the following months.

Carnes is above all ready to get to work on an area that continues to undergo fascinating and critical transformations.

If there was a moment where people thought the state could do it all, we’re past that. If there was a moment where we thought the market could do it all, we're also actually past that. But both have contributed in marvelous new ways in recent years; the private sector has brought new form of credit and unleashed entrepreneurship, and the public sector has devised new forms of social policy and investment in families that are increasing educational opportunities. And what’s really exciting now is to think about the ways those two could work even more closely together.