Hector Varela-Rios

MA Student


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 your area of study and what is the focus of your current research?

I am in the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion (ASR) area of study, one of the most storied programs in the Religious Studies field in the US. 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?

Since I am still a first-year MA student, academic work in UChicago is just starting!

However, I did a previous MAR in the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. My final thesis was about a local 'holy woman' referred to as 'La Samaritana' (a reference to the Good Samaritan tale in the Bible), who lived in the mountains of Puerto Rico in the early to mid 20th century, and literally thousands of people did pilgrimages to her house to be cured of ailments, both physical and mental; a fascinating socio-religious phenomenon, well-documented in newspapers of the time, that still resonates in Puerto Rico.

Here in Chicago, 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.

Do you participate in any of the Council on Advanced Studies workshops (and if so, tell us a bit about that experience?

I haven't participated in the workshops yet (concentrating on regular coursework!), but definitely will in 2014-15. I have asked other students about the Latin American and Caribbean workshop and have heard only good things. I am hoping that, sometime soon, we can revitalize the ASR student group in Swift Hall.

I am a member, though, of the Spiritual Life Council; not a workshop per se, but still a campus-wide organization that coordinates spiritual, multi-faith, and interfaith activities and discussions in UChicago. I am also, with a group of other students, reactivating the Interfaith Dialogue RSO, another campus-wide student organization. Hope to do great things next year!

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), was invited yearly to my high school's career day workshop, and (hopefully; not 100% certain) will TA a class in the summer 2014 with a professor/friend in McCormick Theological here in Chicago.

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.

What do you plan to do after you have completed your degree from the Divinity School?

In 2014-15, I plan to petition internally for the PhD program, while exploring outside options as well. Be it here, or somewhere else, I hope to finish my PhD and then become a professor of religion at an academic setting. As I will probably be in my mid fifties by then, it is important to start engaging my relevant issues early, and I will do this locally, but always with an eye on contributing to my Puerto Rico.