​Our Cultures Are Not at Your Service

“Yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture, a new story to explain the world.”—Gloria Anzaldúa, The Homeland, Aztlán / El otro México

Borderlands/La Frontera

Ruben: There’s beauty in seeing a room full of smiling faces bobbing their heads to songs that flirt with both English and Spanish, saturated sweetly with the sounds of Latin America. Through Latinx cultural groups, we transport little slivers of our homes, of the Latin American diaspora, into rooms on campus that have—for the majority of this institution's history—excluded people who look like us.

But Latinx cultural groups are not just here to serve as a spectacle of food and music. They play an intimately personal role to Latinx students, particularly those who struggle with feeling as if they belong to this institution.

Zoe: At the first Fuerza Latina meeting I ever went to, I felt like I was stumbling into an unknown yet familiar world colorfully painted with vibrant personalities that reminded me of home. I was embarking on a journey of what being Latina meant, trying to discover my own definition of Latinidad. It was hard coming fresh from a world where no one I knew had ever had to say they were Latino outside of boxes checked for standardized tests. In every way, college meant exploring the identity I had never felt authentic enough to be, surrounded by others who were also grappling with the same questions of what it meant to be Latinx on this campus, in this nation, and in the world.

R: The Latinx cultural groups are the first spaces in which these feelings of exclusion and marginalization are validated by others who’ve felt parallel sentiments. For many students, membership in Latinx cultural groups is a form of resistance and survival—in preventing us from transferring, empowering us to thrive, and making navigating this institution possible.

They play an indispensable role in supporting Latinx students. And yet, Harvard, in its mission and marketing, views them as instruments of the “transformative learning experience” it aims to offer our non-Latinx peers, not as vital aspects of many Latinx students’ experience here.

Z: The day I was elected Treasurer of Fuerza Latina, I smiled so widely I couldn’t hold it in. I was going to be able to be a part of the magic and have a hand in creating the feeling of familia, a solid connection which grounded me in a freshman year of complete unknown. I had dreams of helping cultivate a community where I could make other Latinxs feel welcome and valid, on a campus where I know that didn’t always happen. I wanted to open the doors of celebrating the Latinx identity, from meetings to study breaks, filled with food, decorations, and music, to remind us of what we miss most about home. I quickly realized how naive I was to believe that Fuerza could build a strong community between its members and make up for the lack of resources provided by the College.

R: The Harvard Foundation offers a glaring example of the way institutional support is predicated on the idea that cultural groups’ main purpose is to teach the broader student body about their ethnicities and cultures. The Foundation’s funding guidelines say that they “provide funding for food events, provided that the food will serve to introduce students to ethnic cuisine” and that “closed, sit-down dinners” cannot be covered. A dinner with Latinx comfort food meant to help Latinx students cope with homesickness would not be covered, but an event for students seeking nothing more than free food would be.

Z: The struggle to find funding at Harvard as a treasurer for a cultural organization reveals more than it should. I have sat in front of a board of my fellow students who have the power to influence race relations at the College through allocating funds to organizations, like mine, that address the subject. I have been peppered by them with questions requiring me to defend why my proposed event is important, if it’s achieving the definition of “inclusivity” they deemed to be the right one—only to be rejected because it was, in their eyes, “not open to the entire Harvard community.” I have been made to feel like the worth of my community is explicitly tied to how I can “share” my culture with others, even when event attendance has never been discriminatory and the Latinx identity is inherently interracial, because of colonialism and forced migration.

R: Latinx cultural groups cannot focus on exhibiting Latinx culture when their leaders feel a moral responsibility to support Latinx students who are struggling. As leaders of cultural groups, we’re happy to share our culture and lived experiences with our classmates the way administrators hope we will, but we cannot be expected to do so when we don’t have the resources to support our members first. Standardized operational budgets for cultural groups could address our lack of resources. The establishment of a multicultural center would help. Alternate forms of funding for internal, targeted club events would be game-changing. Support us first. Then ask us to introduce you to our worlds.

Z: As a leader in a large cultural organization, I have not felt supported by the College and have experienced moments where I wished I didn’t have to fit events into either the agenda of the Undergraduate Council or the Foundation. I have had to ensure that Fuerza’s purpose of filling the holes created by failures on the part of the College to be there for Latinx students—by providing representative mentors, professors, mental health professionals, physical spaces, and financial support—were actually funded.

In a political climate where communities of color are consistently under attack, our communities must be able to simultaneously stand on their own and support inter-cultural conversations that consist of more than, in my case, ordering Felipe’s and inviting the entire Harvard student body to try on my Mexican identity for the night. There needs to be more support for cultural organizations to cultivate their own communities, or else this label of inclusivity needs to be shed for what it really is: easily consumable bits of ethnic identities.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Their column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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