Professor Lenti Brings Diversity and Enlightenment to EWU
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It was on the desert range of Arizona, while driving a van full of visitors for the Chiricahua National Park, when he saw the group of migrant men crouching low to fill up their milk jugs with puddle water. Being 21 and from Massachusetts, this was new to EWU History Professor Joseph Lenti, Ph.D.
Having little knowledge of the U.S.-Mexico border policies, he began to slow down until the passengers showed their trepidation and encouraged him to keep driving. Lenti now knows from his experiences and extensive research on Latin America and European history, he would have acted more compassionately for the migrants than he did that day.
Others told Lenti to report the migrant men to National Park Services officials, which he decided not to do.
So he continued to drive on.
“I think about that moment a lot, and it fills me with regret,” said Lenti. “I could have helped them, or at the very least, I could have tried.”
Lenti said knowing what he knows now about the inequalities of opportunity and the risks migrants go through in pursuit of a better future, losing his job would have been a sacrifice he could have made.
When Lenti went to the Southwest, he said it was those experiences that changed his perspective on life and had him open his eyes to a new kind of career and value system.
“I’ve learned a lot from that and I like to think that it molded me into a more compassionate and better citizen of the world,” Lenti said.
From a medium sized town in the center of Massachusetts, Southbridge is where Lenti holds young memories and his first cultural experiences being a second generation Italian-American migrant.
His father came to the United States when he was 32, and his mother is the daughter of two Italian migrants.
Lenti lived among a tight ethnic Italian community that was surrounded by many other ethnic communities like Latinos, Columbians and Irish.
“I grew up around the Italian Club in my hometown, my father was President of the Italian Club and it was really where I was raised,” said Lenti. “Those old guys and those ladies, they didn’t speak English and they’ve been in the country for sixty years, so it was pretty amazing.”
Lenti said he thinks sometimes people make decisions that are completely unrooted from something inside of that person. This leads him to believe his connection with the people he grew up with made him gravitate towards studying the Latin American culture.
Lenti said a main memory of his was watching the 1960’s western films that were produced by Italian directors at his grandparent’s house. The Italian actors would portray the mexican bandito characters.
“And I can honestly say that something like that is a factor of my life story,” said Lenti. “It’s kind of goofy and somewhat trivial but it’s not to say it’s not real.”
Lenti entered college pursuing a criminal justice degree, after he witnessed the OJ Simpson trial during his high school years.
After working several jobs during college, his heart was pulled into the realm of history.
He then started working for The National Park Service, which allowed him to further learn and discuss history. Lenti has given many historical talks, like on the Battle of Lexington and Concord and on the Apaches in Arizona.
Once he spent time in the Southwest, he said he knew that is where he wanted to live, among the Great West and The Big Sky.
During his time in college, he visited Mexico and lived there for three years. This is the place where he met and married his wife.
“I was very interested by the country and fascinated with the ancient cultures and contemporary cultures,” said Lenti. “So intellectually I was drawn more to Latin American but I never realized all these cultural connections with it.”
His first major project, which will be a book released later this year, looks at the relationship between the Mexican government and the labor unions in that country in the 1960s and 70s.
EWU graduate candidate Logan Camporeale describes Lenti as a huge motivating factor and a selfless, helping professor that has encouraged him to travel to two different countries to present his own research.
“A couple of weeks ago I approached Dr.Lenti with a last minute idea that I needed help with,” said Camporeale. “Without much notice he jumped into action and guided me to necessary resources to accomplish my goal.”
Camporeale said he would not be the same scholar and researcher without Lenti’s guidance. He often finds himself knocking on his door when he is confused with a particular topic.
Camporeale emphasizes the importance of having Lenti’s presence on campus for preserving diversity and enlightenment among students.
“[Lenti’s] perspectives on how U.S. policies have impacted Central and South America are valuable to students trying to understand the situation of countries in those regions,” said Camporeale. “His involvement on campus is important because he seems constantly preoccupied with locating and creating extra opportunities for students to dig deeper into their scholarship and interests.”
Lenti also recognizes the United States is undergoing immigration policies and said Trump is among a long line of politicians who use the rhetoric of nationalism to stir up a public frenzy about globalization.
“I think that’s interesting because even though we know it’s happening, the United States is a country that doesn’t openly tolerate explicit discrimination, but it may tolerate in a sort of covert and defecto way. But even Donald Trump can’t say we are going to reduce the immigration of Muslims in this country, but he can pass laws and admit orders that do that,” Lenti said.
Lenti said historically these kinds of legislation have been put into place to target certain ethnic groups without ever explicitly mentioning them, but they use clever legal mechanisms that do this.
Even though he has made a life for himself in the Spokane area, he said Boston will always be his home and the italian culture will always be rooted within.
“I’ve always considered myself as an Italian-American,” said Lenti. “American being first but a lot of immigrants have a community with their culture that you exist within and it’s a beautiful thing and a crucial part of the American experience.”