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Journalist reflects on Mexican identity

(11/12/14 7:52am)

Alfredo Corchado, a well-known Mexican-American journalist and author, spoke at Rice University about drug-related violence and journalism in Mexico this Monday.Corchado, who was born in Mexico, said his experience with journalism began after his family immigrated to the United States; when he was working on a farm in California at age 13, a reporter investigating immigrant labor asked him how old he was.“It really marked me; it was like, wow, somebody really wants to tell my story,” Corchado said. “What a noble profession... It’s that sense of giving a voice that always inspires me.”Corchado said he later dropped out of high school and expected to become a hairdresser, but he ended up graduating from community college in Texas and then attending the University of Texas, El Paso and finally Harvard University. Corchado has worked for the Dallas Morning News since 1994, winning several journalism awards, and is now the Mexico bureau chief for the newspaper.Earlier this year, Corchado also authored a book, Midnight in Mexico, which relates his experience reporting in the dangerous conditions of present-day Mexico. According to Corchado, the book deals with the emotional side of his experiences much more than his reporting did.“As reporters, something we do a pretty good job of is keeping our emotions to ourselves,” Corchado said. “And then when you open the gates, it’s like a flood — the emotions take over. There were times [writing the book] when I couldn’t stop crying.”Corchado identified his split Mexican-American identity as one of his main sources of emotion.“It’s the nostalgia of the immigrant,” Corchado said. “It’s like you’re searching for your identity, you know, where do you belong? Do you belong in Mexico, do you belong in the United States? That’s the tears — it wasn’t just the bloodshed in Mexico, it was also this longing to belong to one country or the other.”Throughout the talk, Corchado emphasized the importance of being informed about events in Mexico. He pointed to the protests in the U.S. of South African apartheid when he was in school as an example of Americans becoming passionate about a foreign injustice.“I wonder whether that kind of outrage is here about Mexico,” Corchado said. “I think what Mexicans want more than anything is for the outside world to share her pain.” Enrique Walsh, a Baker College sophomore originally from El Salvador who attended Corchado’s talk, also said he emphasized the importance of spreading concern for Mexico.“I always find it very interesting and encouraging that people like [Corchado], who have first-hand experience with these problems, can spread their voice, write a book,” Walsh said. “[They] make other people feel the same way I feel, and other Mexicans and Central Americans feel, about issues that are very hard to solve.”Walsh said he went to the discussion hoping to hear about possible solutions.“I see a lot of the same problems in my country as in Mexico,” Walsh said. “I was curious about how [Corchado] treated these problems in his book and if he would talk about any solutions.” While acknowledging the continued conflict in Mexico, including the recent disappearance and likely murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Corchado concluded his talk on a hopeful note.“Think about where Mexico has been in the last 20 years,” Corchado said. “And yeah, this is a very dark, difficult time in Mexico. It’s almost like the country is transfixed by what has happened with the massacre of these students in Guerrero... but it’s also a much more plural, much more open society [than 20 years ago].”According to Corchado, the fact that the media has been publicly reporting on the role of the government in Guerrero is emblematic of the changes occurring in Mexico more generally.“Think about the fact that you have journalists today who in the last ten days have been shedding all this light about the administration,” Corchado said. “That kind of stuff you wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago. Is it a country that has changed? No. But it’s a country that’s changing.”

New Economics chair initiates revamp

(10/21/14 4:07pm)

A multiyear revamp of the Rice University economics department has begun under newly-hired professor and department chair Antonio Merlo, who plans to take major steps to develop Rice’s economics teaching and research.Merlo, a native of Italy, moved from the University of Pennsylvania to Rice this summer to head the economics department and the Rice Initiative for the Study of Economics (RISE). In these roles, he will lead the effort launched by President David Leebron to rework the department, which Merlo said is currently not fulfilling its potential. “[The Rice economics department is lagging] in a very basic way,” Merlo said. “The economics department at Rice for several years has not been ranked in the place that Rice University deserves. Rice University has been consistently a top-twenty institution; the economics department is not that status. I think that this is something Rice University [should] strive to have: a first-rate economics department that is on par with the quality of the institution overall. That’s why I’m here.”Merlo said Leebron’s vision for the future of economics at Rice is what attracted him to the job at the university. “The stated goal is really to make this a vibrant department that is able to attract the top researchers from around the world, where faculty are actively engaged in teaching and can give the quality of teaching the students deserve and be a vibrant intellectual community where economics thrives,” Merlo said.According to Merlo, RISE is taking several steps towards this goal, starting by hiring 10 more faculty members. Merlo said four academics from the University of Pennsylvania, including himself, and one from Johns Hopkins University have already been hired. “The fact that distinguished scholars were willing to embrace the vision and come here to Rice should already be a testament to how things are changing and evolving,” Merlo said. Merlo said the department is also working to revise the curriculum to better fit the needs of Rice’s undergraduate and graduate economics students.“The curriculum is trying to offer a broader set of classes, but also a different set of classes,” Merlo said. “So it’s not just a matter of a sheer number; it’s also how do we envision a natural progression in the fields of study so that everything makes sense.”The addition of new faculty involved in research will also enhance economics at Rice, according to Merlo.“The way I view the research enterprise is that there are individual faculty who are all interested in different areas, and once you bring them together it expands the set of questions they can address,” Merlo said. “We want faculty who can bring their research experience into the classroom.”Merlo said research experience in addition to teaching ability are important qualities the department is searching for, especially for lower-level classes.“For teaching introductory courses, a combination of people who are really invested in the teaching mission and really invested in the research mission may be the way to go,” Merlo said. “Certainly, the goal is to have a department that is recognized worldwide for their research but also their excellence in teaching.”Mathematical economic analysis major Andrew Jacobson agreed that a focus on introductory economics classes would improve the department.“The gap I see is in the lower level, especially because you have a lot of different [professors], and they all have different teaching styles, so when you get up into the upper levels, people are going to have different levels of knowledge and that’s kind of where an imbalance happens,” Jacobson, a Brown College senior, said. “My experience has been really good once [I reached] the upper-level classes.”According to Merlo, RISE is a five-year-long plan, and the department has just begun to implement changes; more specific plans are under development.“I think we’re just at the early stages, but certainly things are going very well,” Merlo said. “It’s amazing how our alumni, the board, all the friends that Rice has, how energized the whole community is and how responsive people have been to the initiative.”Merlo said he is optimistic about the initiative’s prospects.“We can do something really amazing together, starting with the students and working all the way up to the administration,” Merlo said. “I think the chemistry is there, and there are certainly some positive vibes in motion that are making people understand it is a viable initiative, which is very exciting and the potential gains are very large.”According to Merlo, a strong economics department is important due to the field’s ability to address a wide range of topics.“I was always fascinated by economics as a discipline that really allows you to answer a very diverse set of questions, but at the same time uses a common language and diverse set of tools to answer those questions,” Merlo said.Merlo taught at the University of Minnesota and New York University before beginning his latest tenure at the University of Pennsylvania. Over the course of his career, he said he has researched topics ranging from conventional economics to crime and the choice of politicians by political parties.“My view of the field of economics is a little different than the traditional view; I actually view economics as the science of choice subject to constraints,” Merlo said. “Economics is not just macroeconomics; it’s not that if you’re an economist the only conversation you can have is what’s going to happen to the interest rate.”According to Merlo, the department will incorporate this expanded view of economics as it adapts to changes in the field.“Economics is so central to everything we do in human life,” Merlo said. “It can really help a lot in almost every aspect of whatever career an individual may choose to have.”