In Memoriam: Susanne Jonas (1941-2022)

From: Gabriela F. Arredondo, Associate Professor, Latin American and Latino Studies

portrait of Susanne Jonas
Susanne Jonas

UC Santa Cruz’s Latin American and Latino Studies Department celebrates the life and legacy of Susanne Jonas, pioneering activist, passionate international advocate for social justice and migrant rights, steadfast critic of U.S. imperialism, dedicated educator, and founding member of our department. She began working as a lecturer at UCSC in 1986, first in the Latin American Studies Program and then in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department. Her courses—among them, Latin American Politics, Latin American Revolutions, Guatemala War and Peace, U.S. Foreign Policy in Central America, Central American Migrations, and Latin American Social Movements—testified to the breadth and depth of her expertise and the richness of her lived experience.  

After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in sociology from Radcliffe College/Harvard University, Jonas earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Harvard, an M.S. in political science from MIT, and a Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley. She began her distinguished career working with advocacy research organizations related to Central America, where she witnessed the brutal civil wars of Guatemala and El Salvador. She argued courageously in her writings and elsewhere against inhumane U.S. policies in Central America. 

Jonas wrote and co-edited 22 books and over 100 articles and op-eds, many of which were translated and circulated widely in Latin America and Europe. Her award-winning book, Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process (Westview Press, 2000; simultaneously published in Spanish), built on her earlier book, The Battle for Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power (Westview Press, 1991; published in Spanish in 1994). The former provides insightful and rigorously researched accounts of Guatemala’s historic peace process. Interviewing over a hundred key actors across the political spectrum, Dr. Jonas demonstrated both the significance of that process for the Central American nation and its implications across the hemisphere. She also deployed her transnational lens in her last book, Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (University of Texas Press, 2015; published in Spanish in 2018), which she co-authored with Nestor Rodríguez, another internationally renowned scholar of Guatemalan migration. Recent obituaries in leading Latin American news sources, including Prensa Comunitaria, elPeriódico, La Hora, and Prensa Libre, speak to her international stature and the respect she earned from the people she loved. 

Over her illustrious 24-year teaching career at UCSC, Jonas infused generations of students and colleagues with her passion for justice and her love for Central America. Current UCSC faculty read her work as graduate students. We were inspired by her rigor, her unflinching analysis of deadly U.S. policies in Latin America, and her bold denunciations of U.S. impunity. Her commitment to her students was legendary. Serena Rivera (Latin American Studies, 1991) recalled being “a bit intimidated by” Jonas’s “powerful presence, but inspired by her passion for human rights, especially Indigenous rights, and her deep belief in the right to self-determination in Latin America.” Similarly, Laura Chiera (Latin American Studies, 1994) remembered “being totally captivated” by Jonas. 

“The class, the subject, and the professor felt alive,” Chiera said. “Every historical or political moment was punctuated with a first-hand story of being in the place and experiencing it with key actors.”

Jonas supervised dozens of senior theses on Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and U.S. interventions in Central America. Students cherished her generosity with her time, her active engagement with their work, and her willingness to push them analytically. “She truly cared about me and helped me see my own potential as a writer and a thinker,” Rivera recollected. 

Several of Jonas’s students remain active in social justice advocacy in the Americas and maintained contact with her after graduating from UCSC.

Jonas was central in the conception and creation of what is now the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at UCSC. She was also an active scholar at UCSC’s Chicano Latino Research Center, now the Dolores Huerta Research Center for the Américas. Her work illuminated the connections among U.S. intervention in Central America, the civil wars there, the exodus from Central America, and the transformation of the U.S. Latinx population by Central American immigrants. Until recent months, she was writing and speaking on the humanitarian crises and political violence at the Mexico-Guatemala and U.S.-Mexico borders and the U.S. government’s callous responses. Her commitment to social justice and transnational perspectives were and remain at the heart of LALS at UCSC. She has inspired generations of us to continue our research and advocacy for justice and human rights in and beyond the Américas. We are honored and grateful to have learned from, fought alongside, and worked with Susanne Jonas. 

P’alante, siempre p’alante.