At the University of Florida’s commencement ceremonies on June 2, 1930, President John J. Tigert announced the creation of the Institute for Inter-American Affairs (IIAA), the first such research center in the United States to focus on Latin America. Having served as US Commissioner of Education (1922–28), Tigert was well aware of the growing interest in foreign affairs in the nation’s political, commercial and academic circles and sought to promote the “Good Neighbor Policy” of the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations. Interest in Latin America at the University of Florida is also a natural result of Florida's geographical proximity to the Caribbean and South America, its Spanish heritage, and its large Spanish-speaking population.
To demonstrate UF’s commitment to “better cultural and economic relations between the United States and Latin America,” the President awarded an honorary degree to a Latin American citizen for the first time, Cuban Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Orestes Ferrara. Over the subsequent decades, the institute evolved into what is known today as the Center for Latin American Studies.
The Institute’s inaugural conference was held in February 1931 as part of the celebratory events marking the university’s 25th year in Gainesville. The Plaza of the Americas was dedicated at the closing ceremony with 21 live oaks planted on the university quadrangle, one for each of the republics of the Americas of the time.
Early on the university recruited students from Latin America, strengthened its Latin American curriculum, and developed collaborative agreements with Latin American universities. Of the 2,257 students enrolled at UF in 1929–30, only four were international students—three from Cuba and one from France. After Tigert announced that the Institute would provide support to foreign students, the total rose to 13 the next year, with eight from Latin America. One of the first collaborative agreements signed was in 1938 with the University of Havana.
The School of Inter-American Studies superseded the IIAA in 1951 in order to coordinate degree programs with a Latin American emphasis. While the first master’s thesis on a Latin American topic was approved in 1929, the Master of Arts in Latin American Studies (MALAS) has been offered continuously under the aegis of the Center since 1952. A Ph.D. was offered between 1952 and 1971, first in Inter-American Studies and then in Latin American Studies.
While the IIAA held sporadic conferences on Latin American, these have been hosted annually since 1951, initially with an emphasis on Caribbean themes. The Caribbean focus of the School of Inter-American Studies was partly related to the Farmington Plan, a cooperative foreign acquisitions program that began in 1940 under the Association of Research Libraries. In the Latin American field, the UF library specialized in the Caribbean, an emphasis maintained to this day.
In 1961 UF received a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a Caribbean Research Program. That same year the Latin American program was among the first in the country to be designated a National Resource Center by the US Department of Education (USDE) and to receive assistance and fellowships through the USDE’s Title VI program in area studies.
In 1962, the Center was awarded Title VI funding and has continuously received funds to support its initiatives. In September 1963, the School of Inter-American Studies was renamed the Center for Latin American Studies. UF faculty members have been a force behind the development of the field of Latin American Studies nationally. Between 1949 and 1978, the Handbook of Latin American Studies, the premier bibliography on the region, was published by the University of Florida Press. Three former and current UF faculty members are past-presidents of LASA.
The University hosted the inaugural meeting of SALALM, the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials.
History faculty members edited the Hispanic American Historical Review between 1960–63 and 1986–1991.
The Secretariat of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) was based at the Center for Latin American Studies from 1972 to 1978.