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Martha G. Newman, Chair BUR 529, Mailcode A3700, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-232-7737

Meet Dr. Virginia Garrard Burnett, our Interim Director

Interview with Professor Burnett

Posted: November 15, 2006

When did you first become interested in Religious Studies?
I have had an interest in religion my entire life, but college was where I had my first real exposure to RS - that is, the study of religion through the lens of social science. I was completely intrigued by that, but at the same time, it seemed more feasible to me to study religion within a different discipline, which turned out to be history.

What attracted you to Latin American studies?
Latin America is where many things I've long been interested in come together - the language(s) and culture, of course, but also the religious traditions, the food, the various views of life you find throughout the region, combined with a fascinating history make it a part of the world where you can still learn and be surprised by things, even after living, traveling, and studying it for many years. (I like to point out that Central American history, which I teach, is many things, but it's never dull - revolutions, ethnic conflict, banana countries, US intervention- it's a microcosm of many of the key themes of LA history in general)

Why is Latin American Studies particularly relevant today?
If you only read the headlines, it isn't - Latin America is definitely on he back burner compared to, say, the Middle East, or even Africa (Venezuela is one exception to that, because Hugo Chavez makes headlines, and he uses language that intentionally MAKES him news). But if you look at LA beyond a superficial level, there are many issues that make the region a harbinger of the future. The debates over immigration and transnational economic entities are perhaps the most visible evidence of that, but there is also so much more, and some of these issues have direct relevance to Religious Studies. For example, what role do churches play as transnational organizations? (You can make the argument that the Catholic Church was one of the first truly transnational organizations in the world). What questions emerge about the rise of new religious movements in the global South that make such movements different than in the global North, such as Europe and the US? What happens at the intersection of ethnic and religious identity?

What changes have you seen in LAS over the years?
That's a hard question to answer briefly. Fewer wars, an end to military dictatorship ((no small accomplishment!) but also a great rise in common crime and a decline in some key social institutions - family, church, community. The globalization of LA is another huge change.

Why Guatemala and El Salvador? What do you see as unique to each country or what do the countries share?
I started my first field research in Latin America during the wars of the early 1980s. There's a saying, "Guatemala chooses you, you don't choose it," and that was certainly the case for me. I immediately fell in love with the country the first time I visited, mainly because of the people, specifically the Mayan population, which is still vigorous and highly identifiable. Guatemala is known as "the land of eternal spring" because of its lovely mountains and temperate climate. But some people used to also call it "the land of eternal tyranny." in the early 1980s, the government was engaged in a genocide against the Maya, and to first come in contact with them when they were in such physical and cultural peril, I think, has influenced me very much to this day. As for El Salvador, it didn't "choose me" in the same way that Guatemala did, and back in the early 1980s it was, for me, a harder place to work. The war in El Salvador was much more up front, much more present in every day life, which made it a challenging place to be. But here, again, its uniqueness lies in its people. Back in the day, there was no better place to see Liberation Theology at work, and the legacy remains today. Salvadorans like to say that they are "muy trabajadores"- hard workers - and they really are.

What do you like best about teaching? About teaching RS Students?
The thing I like best about teaching is seeing the light go on in someone's eyes- that moment when you can just SEE a person engage with an idea and get excited about it. This is especially common with RS students - they are in a class because they WANT to be there and it makes all the difference in the world. Their enthusiasm is often contagious and it usually spreads to the other people in the class. The other thing I love is when people bring their own ideas and areas of expertise into the classroom. I like it when I can learn something new too. None of us "know it all" and I consider it one of my job's great "lagniappes" (Louisiana word for "bonus" or small gift) when I can learn something I didn't know much about, say, millenarianism in India or heresy debates in the early Christian church or medieval monasticism or Yoruban cosmovision.

Where are you from?
I'm born-and-raised Texan. I was born in Dallas but was raised in small towns, Stephenville and Sherman. I went to college and graduate school in Louisiana and lived in Central America before moving to Austin.

Why do you think Religious Studies is particularly relevant today?
I can't think of a single major in the College of Liberal Arts that is more relevant today than RS. I read this recently: "Nationalism became the religion of the 19th century." But it appears to me that religion is becoming, or has already become, the nationalism of the early 21st century. For better or worse, our international and domestic politics are increasingly framed in religious language and discourse, and it is incumbent on all of us as global citizens to understand what lies behind that discourse. It's only through that kind of understanding that I see any real room for hope or optimism for the future, and that's what we do best in Religious Studies.

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