Valiendo la Pena: Latino Students and the Struggle for Space

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.
By Reina A.E. Gattuso and Nathalie R. Miraval

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.

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.


“It’s a sense of family, family ties, a kind of relationship to a whole way of expressing your interest, your emotion, yourself generally. And there’s not a small portion of nostalgia for a culture that you partly represent.” —Diana Sorensen, Dean of Arts and Humanities

“It’s a way of living.... Everything has this sort of umph.” —Maria Barragan-Santana ’14

Hispanic. Latino(a). Chicano(a): n. a human being struggling to unify the international part of her identity with the other part, domestic.Trejo provides this definition while sitting in the Kennedy School’s Belfer Building.

Trejo is half-Mexican—his Spanish-speaking heritage reaches back four generations, to when his great-grandfather moved to the barrios of Phoenix, Ariz., where he worked as a tailor.

“Latino is a self-identified ethnicity, something you have to actively choose to be,” he says.

Nelida Garcia ’14 always identified herself as Mexican—until she went to Mexico when she was 12 years old.

“They were like, you’re not Mexican, you’re American, and for me that was a shock,” says Garcia, who was born in Chicago. “I’m neither from here nor from there—it was a discovery that being Mexican didn’t cover the whole thing.”

It was only when she arrived at Harvard, and met other students with ties to both Latin America and the United States, that she began identifying herself as Latina. It was then that she realized her peers, though they came from different backgrounds, were experiencing a similar struggle.

“Being Latino is engaging in this constant negotiation of your identity,” Garcia says. “Simply check-marking ‘what is your ethnicity? what is your race?’—it’s always been hard for me.”

The only consistent definition of the Latino experience is one of diversity.

“I think we can be seen as this monolithic group, when in reality we’re all—depending on class, race, nationality, language, there’s a lot going on,” Flores says. “And there’s a conflict between whether I’m Hispanic, Latino, Spanish, El Salvadorian. It’s hard to measure that.”

Maria Luisa Parra-Velasco, a senior preceptor in Romance Languages and Literatures who hails from Mexico, agrees. “What is interesting is that there is not an isolated group. You have a continuum of Latinos,” says Parra. She is the course head for Spanish 59: “Language and the Community,” the College’s only Spanish-language course that focuses primarily on the study of Latinos in the United States.

For many students at Harvard, the Latino community is a family away from home.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why the familia ideology has to be kept strong, because we’re away from our families,” says Artiga, one of Harvard’s delegates at last year’s Latino Ivy League Conference. “It can get lonely, because family is such a strong part of the culture.”

Steven R. Strickland ’13, president of the campus chapter of Phi Iota Alpha, Harvard’s Latino fraternity, emphasizes the concept of family as one of the key foundations of his brotherhood.

“Our initiation process doesn’t have alcohol. We basically teach the kids who want to join about Latino history—it’s pretty much a leadership class,” he says. “I think it gives you the support system and family that you miss from back home.”

But this is a family who says they have never had a home.


“It is a great step forward to have broadened Harvard’s diversity by enrolling thousands of minority students without compromising academic standards.” —University President Derek C. Bok in his 1980 Commencement speech

The present movement is part of a cycle which dates back to 1980, when student voices and administrative response set the tone of today’s debate.

Bok’s statement reveals an uneasiness surrounding the rapid diversification of the University. The day before Bok’s Commencement speech, members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Third World Center Organization stood before John Harvard sporting a banner that proclaimed: “Harvard’s commitment to diversity is a sham.”

The students had demands. They wanted to establish a Third World Center—a student-run, University-funded space where minority students could gather for support. The press took notice; the administration, soon after. Bok convened a committee to discuss their demands.

Headed by Reverend Peter J. Gomes and comprised of both students and faculty, the committee Bok established had a mandate: Consider the requests for a Third World Center, study how this is handled at other colleges, come up with a plan.

The committee studied precedents set by Harvard’s peer institutions. They studied Yale’s model, wherein Asian American, African American, and Latino students each had their own cultural house—a structure which exists to this day. Next they looked at Brown’s and Princeton’s model, where minority groups shared a common space. Yet to the committee, each of these models seemed too restrictive, inspiring segregation rather than co-existence.

The Committee’s argument is a concept called Balkanization: If we give minority students a center, pretty soon each minority group will want its own. The Latino students will want a center. The African-American students will want a center. The Asian-American students will want one, too.

Then the Latinos will split into

Puerto Ricans         Dominicans


Mexicans  Costa Ricans        

Chileans         El Salvadorians        PanamaniansBrazilians        


Cubans        Argentines        Guatemalans and


and         on         and        on.

Each group will want its own room, and pretty soon ethnic groups on campus will be hopelessly fractured, isolated in their own worlds. The university wanted to integrate.

So, in 1981, they created something new: the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations, a space that would cater not to one specific ethnic group, but rather use intercultural dialogue to address the needs of all students on campus.

“Every building at Harvard is a multicultural center—every building at Harvard,” says S. Allen Counter, the Foundation’s founding director, reflecting on the events of that year.

Since the Harvard Foundation’s founding, it has sponsored numerous events, panel discussions, and forums for intercultural dialogue. It has invited prominent guests, from Shakira to United States Treasurer Rosa Rios ’87 (a former intern at the Foundation), and sponsored, among other forums, a writers’ series and student dialogues on race.

The Harvard Foundation has fulfilled the goals that the Gomes Committee set out for it. But for some, there is still an unmet need.


“I would rather have Latino Studies 10 than anything else.” —Steven R. Strickland ’13, president of the campus chapter of Phi Iota Alpha

Advocates of Latino Studies emphasize that the establishment of a physical center alone is not enough. While social space and student support is important, it is scholarship that moves our culture forward, says Carrasco.

“You can’t just have a third world center on campus and think that these issues are going to be handled because students of color get together in a place where they can talk,” Carrasco says. While this is good, he continues, “Someone’s got to be doing the very serious scholarship.”

Carrasco would know. About 10 years ago, he and a group of colleagues created a proposal for a Center that would encourage such scholarship at Harvard. By 2001, when their efforts started, strides had already been made for deeper engagement with the study of ethnicity at the University. Much of this impulse came from the Committee on Ethnic Studies, which was founded in 1988 and was originally devoted to the study Asian American, Native American, and Latino populations in the United States. In 1999, the committee began hiring permanent faculty members. Other departments were also beginning to offer courses incorporating more focused study of ethnicity.

The 1994 establishment of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies provided a new impetus for the study of Latin Americans—yet the Center’s focus did not include the study of Latinos in the United States, an absence Carrasco and his colleagues hoped to remedy.

It was for the sake of this serious scholarship that Carrasco and a group of colleagues joined together to create a proposal for Latino Studies at Harvard.

The group of professors, which included Carrasco, Doris Sommer, Gary A. Orfield, Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, and John H. Coatsworth, presented a proposal to the provost.

“We met with the provost, we developed a proposal for this initiative, and the initiative was accepted,” recounts Carrasco. The group was even told—informally—that they would get funding. Yet the promise was short-lived.

“We were told at the end of the summer, four months later, that the funds had been withdrawn,” Carrasco says. The reasons were nebulous. “I was told that the then president of the university, Lawrence Summers, withdrew the funding because of an uneasiness about studies at Harvard that were focused on ethnicity, ethnic studies—but having heard that second hand, I’m not really sure what the reason was.”

Orfield, who was involved with the initial proposal, elaborates. Had it been realized, the institute, he wrote in an email to The Crimson, “would have made Harvard a leader in studies of what soon became the nation's largest minority community,” a minority group whose growing importance, Orfield says, the administration did not understand.

“We worked out an outline plan for creating this enterprise but it was shot down by Pres. Larry Summers who, the Provost told us, thought that if Harvard began such an effort it would divide the country,” wrote Orfield, “and that if there was anything that deserved to be studied someone in the regular faculty departments would study it.”

“It was a deeply discouraging response,” he continued.

In the years since the failed proposal, some of the faculty members originally behind a Latino Studies Center have left the University, sometimes taking valuable scholarly resources with them.

Suarez-Orozco is now at NYU. Coatsworth is at Columbia. While he was at Harvard, Orfield co-founded the Civil Rights Project, a prominent think tank which focuses on Civil Rights for a broad demographic, including Latinos. He moved, with his entire think tank, to UCLA, which, according to Orfield, “is vastly more supportive of this kind of work.”


“Why now? It should have been done years ago. There’s no better time than now.” —Michael J. Trejo, co-founder of HLSA

The struggle for a Latino Studies Center is more than philosophical: It’s logistical, and it’s far from accomplished.

“Every tub has its own bottom; every school has its own endowment,” Trejo says. “The existing infrastructure is so ad-hoc. You have to believe if it were coordinated and well thought-through, [a center] could be amazing.”

Trejo says it will take much more than administrative consensus and funding to make the center a reality.

Dean of Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen stresses that student participation is key.

The administration is “extraordinarily receptive,” to student efforts, she says. Sorensen has strongly supported the Committees on Human Rights and Ethnic Studies. Latina herself, she envisions Ethnic Studies as a supportive place for the study of Latinos. Sorensen details a recent collaboration between the Committee on Ethnic Studies, Fuerza Latina, and Mather House to host an event about Spanglish as an example of what such a collaboration could look like.

“When Michael Trejo came to speak to us about a Latino Studies Center that would be University-wide,” she says, “Professor Shelemay [the chair of the Committee on Ethnic Studies] and I said, ‘You’re welcome, let’s do things together.’”

Carrasco concurs: “Students have much more power than they think.”

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