Blanca G. Silvestrini, an attorney and historian, who recently retired from the History Department after 42 years in academics, has spent her professional life reaching out beyond the Ivory Tower and the courtroom to students, refugee children and repressed women, among other groups.
This spring, Jorell Meléndez-Badillo, a Ph.D. candidate in history, had the opportunity to talk to Professor Silvestrini about her career and her plans for the future.
As she told Meléndez-Badillo, in the interview “my heart beat history, my thought is legally oriented and I have always aspired to reach out to people, whether inside or outside of the classroom.”
Silvestrini will continue her active research life into Caribbean culture and society with an “emphasis on people, real people living in the region but also people on the move.”
Silvestrini received a doctorate in history from SUNY-Albany; her interests in law and society in Puerto Rico led her to earn a law degree and J.S.M. from Stanford University.
The two academic degrees mesh perfectly with Silvestrini’s philosophy and research focuses.
“My teaching and research have gone hand in hand,” she told Meléndez-Badillo. “I approach law as a historical product and research how it affects change in society. “ She gave as an example her course in Latinos/as and Human Rights in which she emphasized changes, influences, contradictions, successes and failures of social movements.
She said teaching, which she began at age 26 at the University of Puerto Rico, sustains her. Despite administrative jobs in academia, she has always returned to the classroom.
She defined teaching as a “reciprocal process” in which students and faculty give to each other. Young people, she said, “force you to think in a different way … (they) anchor you in the present, ask questions you hadn’t thought about and drive your creativity to a new level.”
She reminds her students that young people created the civil rights movements and have been leaders of their times.
In the classroom, her mantra was “history is about real people,” always encouraging students to think of themselves, their families and their communities “as part of history.”
Predictably, a teacher first led Silvestrini to pursue history – a turning point in her life that should remind all students of the value of the core curriculum. She had entered undergraduate studies as a math major but an opening in a Renaissance history course, required to take, turned into a breakthrough experience when, knowing her interest in science, her professor suggested she read a biography of Leonardo da Vinci.
It was the first “real” history book she had ever read and its impact was so great she switched majors to history. That professor became “my role model,” she said. “Beyond content, he taught me how to be a historian.”
It is a role Silvestrini has taken on for countless undergraduate and graduate students, who, like herself, she has required to diversify their studies by reading novels and ethnographies and analyzing films, legal cases and statistics.
Her focus on interdisciplinary studies was intensified as part of a faculty group that helped create the UConn Human Rights Institute, founded in 2003 by eight Liberal Arts and Sciences academic departments and the Schools of Business and Law to advance the study and teaching of human rights. It now has healthy major and minor programs.
Professor Silvestrini has “mentored a generation of historians, social scientists and legal scholars,” wrote Meléndez-Badillo in the introduction to his interview with her.
“Working closely with her at the University of Connecticut has transformed my conception of the uses of historical scholarship can have within and beyond the ivory tower,” he continued.
A review of Silvestrini’s scholarship and publications makes clear the breadth and depth of her interests.
Among her books, in Spanish and English, are studies of female resistance, the politics and violence and criminality of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean as well as the history of that region of the hemisphere. Her countless journal articles take long looks at research resources in Puerto Rico, Latino culture and civil rights, working conditions for women and the Puerto Rican legal system, among other topics.
She is also a practicing attorney and serves as a counselor-at-law and consultant attorney in cases related to immigration and Puerto Rican family and inheritance law for a Cambridge, Mass.-based law firm.
And although she is leaving the classroom for now, Silvestrini’s creative mind continues to lead her in new directions of research and activism.
These fields include legally representing Central American refugee children, health and citizenship in Puerto Rico (the subject of her latest book), and, in a unique avenue of investigation, the cuisine of Puerto Rico at the turn of the 20th century when profound cultural and societal changes were taking place.
“The question brings together the social and economic transformations from an agricultural to an industrial society, the impact of the transition fro Spanish to American colonials, the incorporation of women in the work force … and the expansion of the state powers into education, public health and urbanization,” she told Meléndez-Badillo. As weighty as these investigations sound, Silvestrini also said she plans to have some “fun” with the project by finding recipes and collecting stories.
How entertaining and educational it will be for all historians to read the results of this undertaking. Thank you, Blanca Silvestrini, for your continued mentoring and work in the field of history.
Of the many History majors who were graduated on May 8, twenty-two History majors graduated either as Honors Scholars or with Latin honors – some with both.
Five Honors Scholars shared their thesis abstracts with the department: one evaluates the impact of President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress on US foreign policy toward Chile; another examines the reversal of fortune for the English monarchy in the 13th century; and another investigates a possible connection between queer/queercore zines of the 1980s-2000s and radical queer politics. Another thesis analyzes the Kurdish nationalist movement in the 20th century, while another scrutinizes the impact of the Enrollment Act of 1863, the first national draft in United States history.
Abstract: Facing the threat of communism spreading throughout Latin America after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, President Kennedy enacted a sweeping re-imagination of US regional foreign aid: The Alliance for Progress. Designed to thwart the spread of communism through improving continent-wide economic and social development, it represented a peak in US ambitions to affect policy changes abroad. This paper combines an analysis of US foreign policy towards Latin America, with more specific foci on Chile, US-Chile bilateral relations and the Chilean housing sector. Ultimately, the paper examines the relations between the two governments, particularly during the presidency of Eduardo Frei, an ambitious, pro-US reformer. Using housing policy as a case study, the paper examines how reformist aims contributed to counterproductive results, including the first democratic election of a Marxist president in the Western hemisphere.
Abstract: After the reigns of Henry II and Richard I, the prestige of the English monarchy was at an unparalleled high. The kingdom owned large stretches of land in western France and after Richard’s prominent role in the Third Crusade the monarchy could scarcely be more respected. In the beginning of the 13th century the kingdom was ruled first by King John, and then by Henry III. Despite the power of their predecessors, both kings saw a massive downturn in their authority. The barons of England were constantly rebelling and they stripped much of the power away from the crown, until at one point the king was little more than a puppet with his son Edward held hostage and Magna Carta signed and sealed to preserve future limits on the King’s power. Many historians both then and now attribute this to the weaknesses of John and Henry III. However, while this was certainly a major factor, my research has uncovered an underlying theme of greed for power on behalf of the English nobility that I believe exceeds any weaknesses the monarchs had. This paper identifies how and why the English nobility stole power from the king, and to what degree the nobility were fighting for their own glory, and not the glory of their country.
Abstract: In an effort to further historicize queer anarchist politics in the 20th century, this thesis worked to establish a connection between the queer/queercore zines of the 1980s-2000s and radical queer politics. Zines from the Queer Zine Archive Project database were closely examined and compared in an attempt to distill the radical politics that manifested in the space of queer punk, homopunk, and queercore. Through an exploration of these artifacts, it became evident that the radical leftist politics of the early Gay Liberation movement were transformed and founded renewed invigoration in the queercore scene, wherein authors expressed their thoughts and feelings on topics ranging from capitalism, homonormatism, racism, and normative gay integrationalist and assimilationist politics aimed at normative liberal moves towards citizenship.
“A State Denied: Kurdish Nationalism and the Problems of Ethnic Coordination”
Abstract: In this paper, I examine the history of the Kurdish nationalist movement in the 20th century. I propose that Kurdish nationalist movements that have the ability to encourage Kurds to self-identify along ethnic lines will have the most success in attracting support and achieving their goals. As a result, countries like Iraq where there is no unified sense of national identity will foster stronger Kurdish national movements. On the other hand, countries like Turkey where the state can counter Kurdish identity will be able to resist the demands of even strong Kurdish movements such as the PKK, which limits its support base by identifying itself as an ideological as well as an ethnic movement. In particular, states like Iran which successfully foster non-ethnic identification are successful in dissuading Kurds from joining Kurdish nationalist movement. This research suggests that ethnic nationalist movements which have a purely ethnic appeal for support are most likely to succeed, while those that also try to assert other messages (religious, ideological, social, etc.) are less likely.
Abstract: As recruitment slowly dwindled as the Civil War dragged on, the North was forced to pass the Enrollment Act of 1863, the first national draft in United States history. For an already unstable nation, the national draft did little to heal the divides that split the country. The policies of substitution and commutation led to great resentment, eventually sparking the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. To many Union soldiers, drafted men and substitutes were “unscrupulous men” who lied, deserted, and shirked their duty to their country. Other volunteers however, urged their loved ones to escape the draft and to support the war effort from home. My thesis examines and analyzes the thoughts and attitudes of these Union soldiers, recorded in their diaries and letters, giving us great insight into the average soldier’s opinion on recruitment and the draft, a view that has often been overshadowed by the public’s.
Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) Awards support University of Connecticut full-time undergraduate students in summer research or creative projects.
SURF awards are available to students in all majors at all UConn campuses. SURF project proposals are reviewed by a faculty committee representing various Schools and Colleges, and SURF award recipients are chosen through a competitive process.
Helen Stec ’18 received a SURF Grant for work on a project titled “Battle from the Homefront: How Two Northern Women Helped Fight the Civil War.” Her faculty mentor is Professor Peter Baldwin.
Chartered in 1799 “…to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest and happiness of a free and virtuous people…” The Connecticut Academy of the Arts and Sciences is the third-oldest learned society in the United States. Its purpose is the dissemination of scholarly information. For the past 200 years, the Academy has fulfilled this mission through lectures and extensive publications. (from the CAAS website)
Michael Limberg was nominated to the Academy in September 2015. He is UConn’s first Graduate Fellow.
Limberg’s dissertation focuses on the efforts of a network of U.S. missionaries, philanthropists, and diplomats to encourage economic and social development in Turkey, Lebanon, and Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s.