La Jolla’s Institute of the Americas celebrates 40 years of bridging borders in Western Hemisphere

The Institute of the Americas in La Jolla marks its 40th anniversary this month.
(Suzanne Sanger)

The Institute of the Americas on the UC San Diego campus in La Jolla has worked for decades to promote economic and social development across all the Americas.

The institute is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month with a look back on its history and its impact on regional growth as it trains its eye on the future with a focus on education and climate action.

The institute marked the anniversary with a private function Nov. 6.

The late Theodore Gildred Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Argentina and local real estate developer, founded the institute in November 1981. Members of his family attended last weekend’s event, along with UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla and institute board member Thomas Shannon Jr., who was U.S. ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013 and recently served as undersecretary of state for political affairs.

A public gala is planned for late spring.

From left, Ted Gildred III, Thomas Shannon Jr., Pradeep Khosla, Jorge Rosenblut and Richard Kiy
From left, Ted Gildred III, Thomas Shannon Jr., UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, Institute of the Americas Chairman Jorge Rosenblut and institute President Richard Kiy attend the organization’s private 40th-anniversary event Nov. 6.
(Carlos Fernandez)

Gildred established the institute to encourage economic and social reform among the Americas, enhance private-sector collaboration and communication and strengthen political and economic relations among Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States and Canada.

Gildred spent his early years in Mexico City before attending Stanford University and “maintained very strong connections with Latin America,” according to Institute of Americas President and Chief Executive Richard Kiy.

In 1981, Gildred re-created his father’s 1931 solo flight from San Diego to Ecuador, stopping in Mexico, Panama and Colombia. During the trip, Gildred “encountered a lot of serious challenges in Latin America,” Kiy said. “He realized there was a need for greater engagement between the U.S. and Latin America. And that gave rise to the institute.”

The Institute of the Americas complex on the UC San Diego campus is pictured under construction in 1982.
The Institute of the Americas was established in 1981. Its complex on the UC San Diego campus is pictured under construction in 1982.
(Courtesy of Institute of the Americas)

Then-UCSD Chancellor Richard Atkinson, looking to establish a graduate school, invited Gildred to build the institute’s complex on a stretch of barren land on what is now the North Campus, Kiy said.

The institute became one of few in the country promoting better relations in the Western Hemisphere and greater trade and investment in Latin America, he said.

The institute, a nonprofit organization funded by corporate and individual donors, grants and federal agencies, leases its land from UCSD and has become “a catalyst for the university to become much more engaged internationally,” Kiy said. It has helped UCSD further develop its School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Now, Kiy said, Latin America is “facing its worst economic crisis in a generation,” with hardships related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including 120 million children unable to attend school.

The question, he said, is “how the region is going to catch up, particularly given the movement … toward the digital economy.” Latin America traditionally has been focused on commodities such as oil and agricultural products.

As it has for decades, the institute addresses the challenges by serving as a bridge between the Americas.

“The institute has a really important role to play” given its location in San Diego, “a leader of biotech ... a leader of wireless technology,” Kiy said. “And we are right here on the UCSD campus, next door to the Supercomputer Center.

“We have a unique opportunity to be a bridge for a lot of the companies, researchers and other academics that are working in some of these technical areas but want to find an interface with Latin America.”

Kiy added that San Diego contains “a very large diasporic community from Central America as well as Mexico. We’ve got a number of Brazilians and Argentinians working in the high-tech sector. One of the roles that we see here at the institute is trying to be that connector for the broader San Diego community to help the community learn more about emerging issues in Latin America but also find ways that we can help connect companies and individuals to do more in the region.”

The Institute of the Americas also is “doing what we can to engage Canada,” Kiy said. “And in that context, what we’re really focusing on is the way to engage Canada and the United States with greater involvement and investment in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Institute of the Americas President Richard Kiy says the organization addresses issues from "a regional lens."
(Suzanne Sanger)

Kiy said the institute strives to analyze issues “from a regional lens … to be able to share best practices among respected policymakers so that in the end, you end up with better public policy.”

For the past 30 years, the institute has been particularly focused on energy, since Latin American countries depend on revenue from state-owned oil companies.

However, Kiy said, as “there’s a recognition that climate change is in front of us,” the challenge is “in terms of energy transition ... creating the jobs of the future in new sectors like solar, wind [and] geothermal, and also then figuring out how they’re going to transition some of these state employees working for these oil companies into these new jobs.”

There is a “critical need for key countries in the region to step up their leadership on climate action,” Kiy said.

Citing a recent institute case study, he said Latin America is “a biodiversity hot spot. … There is a need to protect the region’s tropical rainforests from deforestation.”

Kiy said the Institute of the Americas “is working to expand public awareness on this” and other related issues, adding there’s a “role for the institute to play in creating a voice on the West Coast for broader Latin American interests.”

The institute just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sweetwater Union High School District in southern San Diego County to develop STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programming, Kiy said. The institute, in collaboration with UCSD Extension, will launch the programming in 2022.

More than 70 percent of the district’s students are Latino, and 50 percent have family members across the Mexican border, Kiy said. “There’s a need to try to expand STEM and STEAM opportunities for Latinos,” he said.

The programming also aligns with Khosla’s move “to try to make UCSD a Hispanic-serving institution,” Kiy said. “We believe what we’re doing with Sweetwater could be a way to open up the door for students that may not even think UCSD is a possibility for them.”

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