Valiendo la Pena: Latino Students and the Struggle for Space

Gregory B. Johnston

Harvard was missing something. Surrounded by peers at the annual Latino Ivy League Conference in Ithaca last November, Daniel J. Artiga ’15 came to this realization: As students active in the Latino community described the resources provided on their respective campuses, he had little to add. “Yale spoke, Brown spoke, they all had something great to say,” he remembers. But then it was Harvard’s turn. “The other delegates and I mentioned how it would be awkward beforehand, because we didn’t have a lot to say,” recalled Artiga, vice president of the Latino Men’s Collective. “But it didn’t hit me until I was actually sitting in a room listening to other students bragging about how well their Latino community is treated—and how ours is, I feel, neglected.”

Harvard prides itself on being at the vanguard of new inquiry. Yet when it comes to the study and support of the nation’s—and higher education’s—fastest-growing demographic, some students and professors believe that Harvard is falling behind.

“Spanish was spoken in many parts of what’s now the United States long before English was spoken,” says Professor David Carrasco, a Professor of Latin American Studies at the Divinity School with a joint appointment in Anthropology. Carrasco is Mexican-American and has been studying and teaching about Latinos and Latin America for years. A friendly, intense man with a jovial voice that switches effortlessly from English to Spanish as students stop by his office, he says that some histories of our nation just don’t get taught.

“We’re not trying to say this here because we want to raise up the ethnicity of Spanish speakers,” he clarifies. “It’s just a historical fact.”

Latinos are part of the nation’s past. They are part of Harvard’s past, too. They are a vibrant and undeniable part of its present. And the Latino population is growing. Fast.

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Research on this swelling demographic and its impact is expanding at a rate similar to the population’s growth. And for good reason: The 2011 U.S. Census Bureau reports that the Hispanic population has almost doubled in size over the past decade. The nation’s largest ethnic minority, it accounts for 16.7 percent of the population—a number expected to reach 30 percent by 2050. And Latino students make up 11.2 percent of admitted students for the class of 2016.

Many of Harvard’s peer institutions offer either specific programs for scholarship of Latinos or cultural centers for their students. Students at Yale can go to La Casa Cultural, a cultural center founded in 1977. Stanford’s El Centro Chicano was established in 1978. Studying at Cornell? Minor in the Latino Studies Program.

Harvard has no equivalent.

“I’m struggling to find the resources and opportunities to explore my culture,” says Victor M. Flores Jr. ’13, who has been involved with College Latino student groups since he was a freshman. “There are still groups of color on campus that feel like learning about their culture and their communities and their history, and it’s difficult to access,” he says.

Efforts to bring such resources to Harvard, including attempts to create a center where students can have access to researchers and resources related to the Latino experience, stretch back approximately 40 years. This past April, Michael J. Trejo, a joint Kennedy and Business School student and the president and co-founder of the Harvard Latino Student Alliance (HLSA), published an op-ed in The Crimson, once again bringing demands for a Latino Studies Center to the fore.

Beyond drawing attention to the need for a more focused Latino Studies program, Trejo’s op-ed revitalized discussion of a student demographic that, while expanding, is—according to many of its members—talked about too little.

Visions for such a center at Harvard range from a social space where Latino student groups can meet and hold events, to a center or institute for scholarship and research opportunities, to a program of academic study within the College. The most cohesive plans embrace them all: a physical space where students and scholars can meet to discuss and disperse funds for the research and study of Latinos, accompanied by curricular offerings for College students.

Resistance to establishing a Latino Cultural Center is in keeping with Harvard’s long-standing policy on how it chooses to support ethnic and cultural student groups. With the exception of the Harvard University Native American Program, a University-funded office and space dedicated to supporting and educating about Harvard’s Native American community, no cultural student groups on campus have University-allocated centers. While this is true, many advocates of Latino Studies and of a Latino Studies Center laud the work done by the Department of African and African American studies, and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute, as models for what such resources might look like.

With the expansion of the Committee on Ethnic Studies—which, through curricular offerings and collaboration with student groups, offers support for those interested in the study of Latinos both in and outside the classroom—students and professors believe that Harvard is heading in the right direction.

Yet they worry that it’s not getting there fast enough.

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