Hector Varela-Rios

PhD Student in Theology


Why did you choose to attend the University of Chicago Divinity School?

I needed the best fit for my life, and Swift Hall was it: the program (academics, faculty, resources) is one of the best in the country; UChicago is a top-notch research institution; Chicago is a fabulous city; suburban life here offered great opportunities for my teenage sons and young adult daughter (who hopefully will attend University of Illinois as a grad student in 2016); my wife thankfully found employment easily. But, in the end, it was the people I met during the Prospective Students' Day that made the difference. From current students to Dean Mitchell, I, an uncommon 'freshman' by many standards, was personally welcomed and encouraged to attend. That 'sealed the deal' for me.

What is the focus of your current research?

My focus is material religion (ritual expression, objects, instruments, etc.); I am interested in how religiosity is maintained and transformed through embodied entities in all cultures; I am especially provoked to study this in my Caribbean context (I am from Puerto Rico), the 'Atlantic modern' (borrowing a term from Stephan Palmié). I am convinced that religion thrives in our 'secular', 'post-modern' (and, in my context, 'post-colonial') world through personal religiosity in its 'simpler' manifestations; in other words, not because of 'ivory tower' doctrine or institutions, or experiences of the collective, but because of 'grass-roots' expression in the individual and local level.

What are or have been the highlights of your academic work so far?

In a course called Magic, Science and Religion with Prof. Doostdar, I was able to research the polyvalence of Florida Water cologne (a perfume used in ritual and everyday life) in native and 'diasporic' AfroCaribbean and Latino American religion and culture in general. It was helpful in focusing my research interest, besides being an extremely interesting paper to do.

What experience (if any) have you had in teaching?

I have no experience in UChicago, since MA students do not normally get TA opportunities here (too many PhD students!). But I did teach adult Bible school in my local church in Puerto Rico for ten years (before coming here), was a teacher through Junior Achievement for a couple of years (teaching Life Skills to middle schoolers), was part of an interfaith organization in Puerto Rico that organized forums and workshops (in which I participated several times as facilitator), [and] was invited yearly to my high school's career day workshop.

What activities do you participate in outside the classroom? (community service, work, hobbies, etc.)?

I am Methodist, and regularly attend church here and help out as I am able in its ministries. I do not work at the present time (studying full time), but, since my wife works full-time, I guess helping manage the house and two teenage boys (and a daughter in college in Puerto Rico) counts!

Whenever I have time to spare (does not happen often!), I read (and collect) fantasy role-playing-game literature and ephemera (think Dungeons and Dragons). That's just the latest iteration of my life-long 'collecting', having previously gone through swiss army knives and baseball cards of Puerto Rican players in US and Puerto Rican leagues. Yes, hoarding is a hobby for old geeks, if done in moderation.

How do you like living in Chicago?

Chicago is undoubtedly a great city. My family and I have been able to visit many of its cultural offerings, from the Lakefront to its many parks; from Humboldt Park (the Puerto Rican 'enclave') to the Lincoln Park Zoo. My wife and I love The Art Institute. We have seen a couple of plays at Broadway in Chicago. Just walking around 'the Bean' is a constant must-have experience. In the suburbs, I am blessed to have trails in close-by woods (both paved and un-paved) to channel my inner mountain biker. We also have the wonderful Brookfield Zoo not 15 minutes from the house.

It also is fortuitous that Chicago is within driving distance of other in-state and out-of-state attractions, such as Six Flags (for the teens...and me), Lake Geneva, the Dunes, and Starved Rock. I can only recommend it.