Latino Life at Harvard

With a small undergraduate community, a dearth of Harvard role models and no place to call their own, Hispanic students are saying that the College can do more to improve...

When asked about their experience at Harvard, Latino students' replies share one common theme: the College does not measure up to other schools.

"A lot of people just say, `I should have gone to Stanford or UCLA,'" says Lilia Fernandez '95, the president of Raza, Harvard's Mexican-American student group.

These schools have Latino faculty and Chicano and Latino studies courses, as well as larger Latino student communities, she says.

Richard Garcia '95, who was recently elected as Raza's next president, says that after seeing the resources available to Hispanic students at other Ivy League institutions he "doesn't understand where Harvard has been for the last 20 years."

Yale has a dean for Chicano affairs and centers for all minority groups, he says, and most of Harvard's Ivy League peers have multicultural centers where Latino students can feel at home.

Many Latino students interviewed yesterday echoed the statements of the student leaders, saying that throughout their student careers, they confront bias in various forms.

"I have encountered a lot of biases and prejudices...they are very subtle," says Fernandez.

For instance, Veronica Rosales '94 says that a student, hearing her speak, asked her what country she was from.

Rosales says the person must have been thinking, "she looks different, she has an accent, she must be from another country.'" Rosales turned around and told the questioner: "Texas."

Rosales says she has encountered patronizing attitudes from her peers, but answer them with pride in her origins.

"I don't feel ashamed of my background at all and you don't have to feel sorry for me," she says.

Other students say they have encountered more blatant and offensive forms of prejudice. Fernandez says, for example, that a friend of hers received a patronizing note from the grader after being given a low grade on the paper.

The grader had told the friend, who was born in the U.S., that since "English is a second language for you," she should not worry about the mark, says Fernandez. The teaching fellow had made that assumption based on the student's Spanish surname, she says.

Another student says he experienced overt prejudicial comments from fellow students his first year at Harvard.

Efrain Cortes '94, the president of Puerto Rican student group La O, says a student once asked him, "So, you're a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. How did you get here?'"

The acquaintance had "thought everything that came out of that area, from Puerto Ricans, was cocaine and crime," says Cortes.

He says he has also heard "a lot of wisecracks about me stealing" things.

Another misconception about Latino students, resulting more from ignorance than racism, is that most Harvard undergraduates don't understand or perceive the great diversity of Latino experiences and backgrounds, say Latino students.

Adrian E. Castro '96, whose background is Peruvian, says that people often tend to assume that "Hispanic" means "Mexican" or "Mexican-American," rather than perceiving that many Spanish speaking groups are included under that term.

"It's like the stereotype," he says. "If you see a Hispanic you assume they're Mexican."

Different groups have extremely different backgrounds and experiences, Latino students say, and it is difficult to generalize about them.

A large number of Latino students come from California and the Southwest, says Rosales, but many also come from the East Coast. Experiences vary by geography as well as cultural history, she says.

Economic class and political orientation also varied greatly within the College Latino community, they say.

Cortes says he thinks that most students think of themselves first as a member of their parents' culture and secondly as part of the larger ethnic grouping of "Latino."

But because Harvard has such a small Latino community, Latino students are brought closer together, whatever their specific cultural origin.

Many say they are tied together also because they share a common experience: going from a largely Latino community to a far smaller and less supportive environment at Harvard.

According to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III, Latino students comprise between 5 and 7 percent of the student body.

"The biggest thing for myself is simply I miss the food I eat at home, the music, speaking Spanish--mostly the social type of interaction," says Letitia J. Arias '94, who is co-chair of Latinas Unidas, a social, cultural and educational group for women of Latino descent.

Her home community was "a good 98 percent" Latino, she says. "Back home you interchange English and Spanish without thinking about was some sort of culture shock" to come to Harvard.

Many students echo Arias' comments, and for a large number, groups like Latinas Unidas, Raza and La O provide a safe and comfortable haven in Harvard's diverse community.

Besides Raza, Latinas Unidas and La O, the College is home to Ballet Folklorico de Aztlan, Del Sur magazine and the Hispanic Forum, a political group which is concerned with Latin American issues as well as those closer to student concerns.

Many students say that despite the social function of such organizations, they see no significant Latino cliques forming.

Although a number of students enjoy spending time with people who share their experiences and viewpoints, most students feel that there are no exclusive or rigid Hispanic social sets and no house with a particularly large Latino community.

But only students of Puerto Rican and Mexican backgrounds have organizations specifically concerned with their needs. Some students see the lack of groups for other Latino ethnicities as a problem.

Leaders of both Raza and La O say they are addressing the gap by making their organizations more inclusive.

"Right now we send [mailings] to all Chicanos on campus," says Garcia, "but we hope to expand to all Latinos."

Both organizations have had board members of other Latino backgrounds, but Cortes says there is a limit to how many groups one organization can serve.

"I would like for La O to reach out to all Latino groups, but if you reach out to all Latino groups you risk losing focus," says Cortes. "There are certain issues that are specific to certain nationalities."

But the groups, which have traditionally served social and cultural functions, are now becoming overtly political in their aims and activities.

Raza, for instance, recently changed its constitution, adding the position of social chair so that the president could concentrate more on policy goals.

Among those goals has been a recent push by Raza and La O to add Latino faculty and ethnic studies courses to Harvard's curriculum.

"It's very hard to function in a place where there are no role models," says Fernandez. You're at Harvard, but you don't feel you're represented in the administration or what the University does."

The dearth of Latino faculty is one important reason, some Hispanic students say, that they look wistfully at the California schools, many of which have Chicano studies majors.

"What [Harvard administrators] need to do is to be more inviting for Latino faculty," says Garcia. "They've got to honestly want it to happen as well...I think they don't understand the importance of it."

Epps, Harvard's top authority on race relations, says that he "agree[s] that some consideration should be given to ethnic studies, which includes Latino studies," but refers further questions to faculty administrators more directly concerned with such issues.

Rosales also stresses the need for a larger Latino presence in Harvard's corps of advisors and administrators.

A Puerto Rican proctor she spoke to as a first-year student "understood why the problems I was having meant so much to me," she said, and another advisor might not have shared the same level of sympathy and shared experience.

Garcia says that another initiative he hopes to see become a reality is a multicultural center with space and resources for all minority student groups, including Latinos.

Although students have called for such a center in the past, a 1980 report on race relations at Harvard rejected the plan in favor of the present Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations.

That position has not changed, says Epps. A discussion on a "third-world center" has not been reopened by College authorities and he says he "doesn't plan to open it" himself.

"Third-world centers tend to promote separation," says Epps. "I thought that it was better for Harvard to work toward inclusion of everyone rather than institutions which promote ethnic separation."

But Fernandez says that Harvard's stance on multiculturalism is based partially on a fear of minority groups empowering themselves.

"The administration wants to see cultural events, but that's it. They don't want to see minority groups active on campus in a political way," she says.