This story is part of a continuing series that features Hispanic leaders at USF during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Beatriz Padilla grew up surrounded by the mountains in Mendoza, Argentina. But once she peeked at the world outside of her country’s vineyards as an exchange student, she realized she wanted to learn more about other cultures, which eventually unlocked her interest in social justice.
For her quinceañera, or 15th birthday, Padilla’s father gave her a trip to visit her family in the U.S. — her first time in the country. She ended up enrolling in English classes in her cousins’ school for about two and a half months and became interested in the language as well as the education system.
When Padilla was about to turn 18, she returned to New Jersey for a year as an exchange student to improve her English and get a taste of American high school life.
“That was a very important year for me,” Padilla said. “Because then I was able to meet people from all over the country, like from all over the world, from different continents, and then you become friends with them. So it was quite a very interesting year for me.”
She returned to Argentina after a year living in New Jersey, and she had not only improved her English, but had also decided to study political science. Padilla knew she wanted to work in a field that would let her defend people’s rights, but growing up in Argentina taught her she would have to put up a fight to achieve her goals.
“I think that in Argentina, [its] social movements have been strong,” Padilla said. “I mean, even within the dictatorship there, you saw people who got out in the streets. I think in Argentina … I was always aware that you had to fight for your rights.”
Padilla got her master’s degree in public policy at the University of Texas in Austin after completing her undergraduate studies in Mendoza. Later she worked toward her doctoral degree in gender studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
During her doctorate program, Padilla met her Portuguese husband and they moved to Portugal for 16 years. She dedicated her time to academia, teaching and researching topics such as Brazilian migration or access to health by immigrant populations.
“I also was interested in racism and discrimination and how much immigrants suffer and experience that, I mean not just Brazilians, all other immigrants, mainly from other Latin American countries, from Africa or from Asia,” she said.
An immigrant herself, Padilla wanted to learn more about the discrimination these populations go through. She also became passionate about sharing the diversity of Latin American experiences, which she said sometimes isn’t as recognized abroad.
Padilla moved back to the U.S. in 2018 and has since worked at USF as a faculty member in the department of sociology. She became interim director of the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC) in the College of Arts and Sciences last year and, this fall semester, she was officially promoted to that position.
The purpose of the institute is to engage local and global communities with events, support students in their academic and professional life and provide a framework for research in issues around Latin America and the Caribbean. Her hope as a leader of the institute is to raise awareness of the diversity and different cultures of Latin America, especially in a community with a large Hispanic culture such as Tampa Bay.
“Being here, and being able to coordinate the institute is so wonderful because it’s something that I am really invested in, it’s something that I really feel identified [with] and I engage with that,” Padilla said.
“I guess you’re always learning, because I’m always learning more. Latin America is so diverse in so many ways, right? Not just countries, but culture, languages, religions and ways of being.”
This is not the first time Padilla has served as an advocate for Latin communities. She used to be the co-chair for gender and feminist studies in the Latin American Studies Association, the largest professional association for individuals and institutions that study Latin America. Now, she is the co-chair for the international migration section.
These positions have led her to become a well-known scholar, according to Adriana Novoa, associate professor at USF and member of ISLAC. She said she had heard Padilla’s name even before they met.
“I was very impressed because for a person with her CV, with her qualifications, she was very humbled and very much approachable with the students,” Novoa said. “Sometimes, people who had her kind of record can be very distant with the students, and that’s not the case.”
Also from Argentina, Novoa is happy to know that a Latin woman is in a leadership position at USF. She said she is very satisfied with the events and goals Padilla has proposed so far for ISLAC.
“She has a great vision for the center,” Novoa said. “But at the same time, she always consults and includes everybody’s opinions … She’s a great listener.”
Last year, Padilla hosted about 10 events as a way to reach out to more students and let them know about the institute. She’s also working on creating mentorships and partnerships that can benefit students.
Being approachable has always been characteristic of Padilla, according to Thais França, one of her friends from Portugal. From working together and knowing her for over 11 years, França said she knows the hardworking and strong woman that Padilla is. She remembered how she was “just always smiling” and recalled the day they both attended a daylong event.
“At a certain point, I sat on a chair, and I just slept, you know, like I passed [out],” França said. “Beatriz was dancing from when we arrived until we left. She wouldn’t stop dancing, and I was there like, dying on the chair, and I would look at her and she was spinning around dancing.”
Francisco Padilla, her 18-year-old son, said he inherited his extroverted personality from her.
Since he was little, he said his mother spoke with him about the issues that she is passionate about, including migration. Her job, he said, has also shaped the way he views society.
“It’s inspiring in a way,” Francisco said. “It really introduced me to a lot of different people and a lot of different cultures. And it definitely opened my mind in different ways.”
Although Padilla hasn’t lived in Argentina in several years, her culture is part of her life. She doesn’t go a day without drinking mate, a typical South American tea infusion drink. She also wants to continue advocating for the voice of Latin people, especially women.
“I think that if you are an immigrant, or if you are a foreigner, or if you are a minority, ethnic or racial minority in a country, and then you are also female, you face even more discrimination,” she said.
“So sometimes [you’re] not being heard, people aren’t really listening to you, or [you’re] being dismissed. Even in academia, sometimes maybe we [are] treated differently, or being challenged differently.”
With the start of the Hispanic Heritage month, she said it’s important to look at the month in a constructive way and analyze what is really being celebrated, since sometimes the term “Hispanic” is used in derogatory ways.
“It is important to commemorate [Hispanic Heritage Month],” Padilla said. “But it is always important to keep a critical view both of history and present, avoid folklorist views and definition of what Latino means.
“Keep in mind the diversity among Latinos across Latin America, the Caribbean and in the United States.”