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To unknowing first-years seeking to become involved with the Hispanic community at Harvard, the number of separate organizations can seem daunting: Concilio Latino, Fuerza, Hola, Raza, Latinas Unidas, and the Latino Men’s Collective. Although these are all organizations that foster community and social experience among students with similar backgrounds, they nevertheless also divide the Hispanic community. The different meeting times, places, and variation from year to year are enough to ensure insufficient interaction among a set of students that share many interests. By removing one of the factors contributing to this problem and creating a central place for all Latino and Latin American culture to thrive, this problem would easily be overcome, and a stronger community would result. This central place should be modeled after the Latino cultural centers found at Yale and Stanford, both founded in 1977.
Despite efforts stretching back decades, little progress has been made in establishing a center at Harvard. In 2001, a memo was sent to University President Larry Summers from Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and 11 other faculty members proposing that the University create a permanent Latino Studies Center. Following the proposal, Summers indicated disapproval of the project, and later shot down the initiative by withholding the money requested from the presidential funds to complete the project. The University has taken the same stance on the issue for decades, holding to the idea that a Cultural center would promote ethnic separation.
However, that is simply not the case. By examining our peer institutions, we can tell that cultural centers promote inclusion rather than exclusion. Sandy Placido, a Harvard Ph.D. American Studies student and Greenough Proctor remembers her undergraduate years at Yale, and recognizes the significant impact of La Casa Cultural, Yale’s Latino center, at the college. “I believe a Latina/o cultural center would greatly benefit the students on Harvard's campus,” she explains. “A cultural center would create a physical space where students could meet each other and work together, but it would also create an emotional space where students could develop and articulate their identities in a safe and supportive space.”
In response to the argument that a cultural space would promote separation of the student body, Placido says, “A Latina/o cultural center would not lead to permanent self-segregation. In fact, it would allow students to develop and strengthen their leadership in a space that acknowledges all aspects of their identity, allowing them to go on and take charge in other spaces on campus.” The administration’s disinterest in the development and fostering of cultural connections at the college also translates to a more general administrative detachment from Latino and Latin American studies. Many students and faculty feel like Harvard has yet to show a strong commitment to increase course offering that address Latino/a and Latin American issues. According to Placido, this means “hiring more faculty, especially faculty of color, who can serve as mentors, regardless of what they teach.”
Although the goal of improving the course offerings within Latino studies—possibly even establishing a concentration—may seem far off, it is not out of reach. There are also already many courses that could be integrated into this potential program of study. There are concentrations and secondary fields on campus, such as History and Literature and Ethnic Studies, which should be strengthened to address topics in Latina/o and Latin American studies. “If course offerings are built up to a sufficient level, it would be wonderful to have a Latina/o, Latin American and Caribbean Studies concentration, since the historical and contemporary issues in these regions and their diasporas intimately affect our everyday lives as Harvard students and as residents of the United States,” says Placido.
As clear proof that the University is moving in the right direction stands the newly created Instituto Cervantes Observatory of the Spanish Language and Hispanic Cultures. A center dedicated to the study of the Spanish language and its progress in the United States. While this collaborative project may indeed place Harvard and Spain’s Instituto Cervantes at the “forefront of Spanish language scholarship,” as University President Drew G. Faust has projected, the University still ignores pushes for both a college student cultural center and a Latina/o and Latin American studies degree. Nevertheless, as the newly installed observatory also plans to host Hispanic culture initiatives throughout the year, its installment is a definite step forward for the oldest university in a country which, by 2050, will have the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world.
The campaign for a Latin American studies degree program is not a new one. Campaigns addressing the lack of such a concentration began in the early 1970s and have continued to today. Still, very little progress has been made in terms of the main objectives of this movement. Its biggest success was the establishment of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in 1994. Today, this organization works to provide research and travel grants for University affiliates and offers a certificate program in Latin American Studies for undergraduates. Nevertheless, a Latino/a and Latin American studies degree program is still further than it should be from realization, even while, a little further down the river, techy MIT offers majors in Latin American and Latino Studies.
Enrique Ramirez ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer.
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