Freshman year had yet to start and I had already been mistaken for a laborer by a Harvard employee.
My roommate and I were picking up a couch that his older sister had left in a House on the river. We walked into the quiet courtyard and found the building manager’s office, since we had to have the storage room unlocked. I stood beside my white roommate as he spoke to the building manager. After my roommate had chatted with him a while, the building manager finally decided to acknowledge my presence.
“I see you brought a laborer.”
The words stung. As my mind worked to process the weight of his statement, the building manager followed up with a second question.
“Or is he the roommate?”
His first impulse was to assert that I was not a Harvard student, yet it was easy to assume that my white roommate was. I couldn’t help but feel that I was being seen as nothing more than the rich melanin in my skin.
But it was freshman year. I had yet to attend my first class so I tried to shrug it off. After all, Cambridge is a liberal bubble and people at Harvard are educated, so there was no way that I, a boy from a middle-class suburb, had just faced racism.
What I did not realize in this optimistic naiveté was that I had, in fact, encountered racism. And more disturbingly, that this racism would be neither the abnormality nor a rogue anecdote in my Harvard experience.
I have made it into this elite institution, fulfilling the dreams of parents who immigrated from El Salvador in search of more than they’d had. But, like the wings of an encaged bird, even these hopes can be clipped.
As a Latino at Harvard, I struggle every day to find a place in an institution that was not built for me. But I am far from the first to struggle. The systemic marginalization of Latinx students is a central, albeit forgotten, part of Harvard’s history.
A HISTORY OF LATINX MARGINALIZATION
Nearly 300 years after this institution opened, Latinx students were finally emerging as a presence on campus. In 1974, Harvard and Radcliffe boasted a joint enrollment number of 6,286 students. The 50 Latinx students enrolled represented less than 1 percent of their population, versus the nation’s 4 percent. Being few in number subjected them to reductive stereotypes and racial transgressions.
In 1976, the Harvard chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity advertised a mixer with a caricature of “Brother Chico,” an overplayed Mexican stereotype. Chicano students said it “symboliz[ed] the prevailing attitude towards Chicanos at Harvard and the society Harvard represents.” Mexican American students, who made up the majority of Latinx students at the University at the time, were subject to the derivative stereotypes that continue to depict Latinx communities today: uneducated, lazy, and a foreign threat to American values. Harvard’s reputation as a world leader in education failed to shield its Latinx students from the ignorance of their peers.
While at Harvard, Efrain Cortes ’94, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, was told by a peer that he “thought everything that came out of that area, from Puerto Ricans, was cocaine and crime.” Without a second thought, Cortes was associated with a rhetoric that dehumanizes Latinx communities by viewing them as nothing more but vessels for crime, drugs, and social plagues—even though some of the most famous cocaine incidents occurred along Mt. Auburn St., not Latinx students’ dorm rooms.
In 1997, Harvard University Dining Services was waiting on a campus-wide vote to see if they’d reintroduce grapes into the dining halls. HUDS hadn’t served grapes for 13 years because of multiple nationwide boycotts meant to address the inhumane labor conditions workers faced in cultivating them. The debate quickly became personal when a white student verbally harassed one of his Latinx classmates as he copied fliers that supported continuing the boycott.
During the altercation, the assailant made the racist and false assumption that the parents of Edgar Saldivar ’99 were migrant grape farmers. The experience was deeply insulting, prompting Saldivar write an email where he expressed how this interaction racially victimized him. The assailant refused to see the racial implications of his comments, sparking a heated email exchange between the Harvard-Radcliffe Republican Association and RAZA, Harvard’s Mexican-American student group.
During his freshman year, a student mistook Jesse G. Sanchez ’14 for one of his classmates’ Phillips Brooks House Association mentee from Boston. Though the story was recounted in a Crimson article about struggles low-income students face at Harvard, it’s clear that his classmates’ mistake was a racially influenced transgression. The presence of Latinx students at Harvard is so unexpected that the go-to explanation for a brown student on campus was that he must have come from a struggling Boston neighborhood.
Each of these conflicts reveal the insidious tendency for Harvard students, especially those who are white, to stereotype their Latinx classmates. The history presented above is only a small glimpse of a larger, institutional problem. All admitted Harvard students are promised an equitable educational experience, but these stories of racial marginalization (and the many more that go untold) undercut that promise.
For Latinx students at Harvard, racism is not just a thing of the past—it’s a part of their present and, inevitably, their future. When the news broke that incoming freshmen had made jokes about hanging Mexican children, it wasn’t shocking. And even though those particular students were rescinded, there are students currently enrolled at Harvard who would have laughed at the joke or made it themselves. From the micro- to the macro-, racial aggressions are the price Latinx Harvard students pay to attend an institution founded on whiteness.
History shows us where we’ve been, but it can also offer insight into where we should go. The first lesson, and subsequent area for improvement, is in peer-to-peer interactions. Administrators must focus on what’s making some of the peer-to-peer interactions between Latinx students and their classmates a jarring experience. Racism may operate systematically, but people of color experience it as individuals in a visceral way.
When a white student comes to Harvard from an all-white high school, he doesn’t have a starting point for interacting with actual Latinx people. Subconsciously, these people structure their interactions on the media portrayals of Latinx people, where they are one-dimensional: criminals, labor sector workers, or entertainers. The natural reaction is to then fit their Latinx classmates into shallow caricatures.
When freshmen enroll, the University has a couple of opportunities to address these biases before they snowball into blatant acts of racial harassment. The first is through the readings assigned for Community Conversations, a program meant to “examine your assumptions and learn about your peers’ diverse identities and perspectives.”
When I was an incoming freshman, we were assigned Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography. By pretty much all standards, that was the perfect book for incoming freshmen to understand what the Latinx experience at the Ivy League can be like, especially when one is also a low income, first-generation student. The problem, though, as I heartbreakingly realized, was that too many people did not read the book at all. If they did, they only read a short section that did not catch the nuances needed to foster true empathy.
Luckily, Community Conversations have begun to address this issue by assigning shorter personal essays and a TED Talk instead of a memoir. The assigned readings now read like personal essays, and they’re written by current Harvard students. This is critically important given that students of color have the best insight into their own experiences.
Moving forward, it’s important that the authors chosen to write these pieces are diverse, along as many axis as possible, and that they offer a critical perspective on Harvard. Latinx students have plenty of positive, rewarding experiences, but assigning fluffy, easily digestible narratives will be of little benefit to incoming freshmen. Instead, the College must present raw, honest, and critical views to incoming freshman to ensure that arriving students don’t mistake Harvard for some sort of racial utopia.
The second solution to bettering interracial interactions on campus is to add nuance to the way the College markets the idea that Harvard is the place to learn from peers who are dramatically different from us. This is a noble endeavor, and one of the biggest benefits from having a diverse student body. But in pursuing this mission, there are inequities that are not being addressed:
Latinx students carry a larger burden in interracial exchanges. They compose less than 12 percent of the admitted student body, so any individual Latinx student will have to share their distinct experience much more often than any given white student would. The experiences Latinx students share—sometimes concerned with experiences of racism, xenophobia, or poverty—can be difficult or tiring to repeat.
No one should have an obligation to such taxing exchanges, and the way administrators feed us the idea that we should learn from our peers does not address this. Moving forward, we should continue trying to build empathy through the sharing of personal narratives, but the College should explicitly acknowledge the inequity of its emotional toll. If not, Latinx students will continue to feel compelled to “educate” their peers, even at the cost of their own emotional health.
THE NEED FOR LATINX STUDIES
There’s also a need to address issues of race via the classroom. Personal interactions are an effective way of allowing people to understand the complexities of Latinx communities, but they're not the only way.
Diversifying course material across Harvard is a highly effective method. Through countless academic and literary texts, students can break down stereotypes, understand histories of immigration, and grasp other staples of the Latinx experience in the United States. If professors make an effort to diversify their reading lists, they can help educate non-Latinx Harvard students, taking a bit of that burden off Latinx students. A bit more Junot Díaz in our English classes and Gloria Anzaldúa in our history classes can go a long way.
In addition to diversifying syllabi and course material, Harvard must also begin investing in establishing a full Latinx Studies program. For more than four decades, students and professors have advocated for Latinx Studies offerings at Harvard but have faced numerous obstacles, including egregious administrative shutdowns from former University President Lawrence H. Summers. Because of Summers’s decisions, Harvard lost critical Latinx Studies scholars and the exodus gutted any potential growth in a program, leading to what is present on campus today—a mere skeleton of Latinx Studies.
Currently, students can pursue a secondary in Latinx Studies from the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights or choose to study Latinx Studies as a subfield in the newly created Ethnic Studies track within History and Literature. However, these tracks are incomparable to a dedicated department, offering only a handful of professors with training in Latinx Studies and course offerings that differ wildly from year to year.
Harvard is not a leader in the field of Latinx Studies, and that hurts students directly. Without a robust Latinx Studies programs there is little chance that students will learn about the important role and place of Latinos in the United States. A lucky few may stumble across a Latinx Studies course, currently hidden in the Romance Languages and Literatures or History departments, but the vast majority will not. Simply put, racial tensions on campus are worse because of our academic failings.
Once we have the course offerings, we need to ensure that students will be encouraged to take the courses. The General Education program is one of the most effective ways of ensuring that students take classes that fall outside of their concentration. It is also one way to expose students to classes that will help them better understand their Latinx peers.
Many schools, including Cornell, University of Massachusetts Boston, and University of Colorado Boulder, have diversity requirements for graduation. The College missed a crucial opportunity during its recent General Education overhaul by failing to add such a requirement. The previous General Education structure required one of the eight General Education courses to “engage substantially with the study of the past.” The diversity requirement could function similarly under the new requirements. A new diversity requirement would encourage students to take courses focusing on the Latinx experience to fulfill their “Aesthetics & Culture” or “Histories, Societies, Individuals” General Education requirements.
The need for Latinx Studies is two-fold. First, its glaring absence delegitimizes Harvard’s claim as a global leader in education. Secondly, the lack of an academic program places the burden of explaining the histories and experiences of Latinx students entirely on the Latinx student body. Formal avenues by which to learn would help make peer-to-peer interactions easier and less emotionally exhausting. Pushing for Latinx Studies at Harvard is an issue of student belonging as much as it it is an educational issue.
THE HARVARD LATINX OF TOMORROW
Latinx students at Harvard often carry a burden that their white counterparts do not. While the problem is not unique to Harvard (Latinx students throughout the Ivy League understand this burden), it does manifest itself in a way that is specific to Harvard. Our traditions, the way we frame diversity, and our unique lack of resources puts us behind peer institutions that may be more hospitable for Latinx students.
Lilia Fernandez ’95 once told a Crimson reporter that, “A lot of people just say, ‘I should have gone to Stanford or UCLA.’” Twenty-four years later, Latinx Harvard students utter those same phrases as they dream of warmer, more supportive campuses.
The Harvard Latinx of then and of now are not as different as one might expect. The Harvard Latinx of tomorrow won’t be either, unless Harvard University commits to making their experience as equitable as possible.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.