Perspectives on Activism and Latinos in Higher Education

The Hispanic population of the United States is growing. Estimates released by the U.S Census Bureau show that the Hispanic population in 2012, making up 17% of the U.S. population, was 53 million. Hispanics are also the nation’s largest immigrant population—among the nation’s 40.4 million immigrants, nearly half (47%) are Hispanic.

But as the number of Hispanics in the United States rises, how is that growing population reflected on our own campus?

Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst, could not have described the condition of Latinos on this campus in a better way than how he said last year in an interview with Peter Rooney:

It is not an easy task to have a diverse Latino population at Amherst. As an institution, we still have much to learn. Latinos are a very heterogeneous and complex group. This is a minority that is not defined by race, language or a particular geographic location. Because we have those 200 or so Latinos coming from different walks of life, there are issues of education that need to be paid attention to. The fact that someone comes from a protected, elite school and makes it to Amherst is different than a Latino from a public school who makes it here. That first meeting here between two [such] individuals can be as much of shock as meeting non-Latinos.

Stavans’ comment that, “there are issues of education that need to be paid attention to,” holds a lot of truth. I believe that Amherst, an institution that does not have its own Latino Studies department, but only the Five College Latin American Studies certificate, for students interested in pursuing this area of study, still has a lot of work to do in terms of promoting “Latinidad” on campus. Aside from the ability students have to participate in affinity groups such as La Causa, the Black Students Union, The African and Caribbean Student Union, and the International Students Union, there really is a lack of yearly campus- wide activities that relate to the advancement of Latinos.

All of my freshman year, I was part of the wonderful La Causa, the Latino affinity student group on campus, and we were very much involved in creating a safe space where we could openly talk about issues confronted by the Latino community on campus. But even then, we still shared many of the same frustrations—the micro-aggressions encountered both in and out of the classroom, professors failing to “get it” whenever we approached them during office hours, and the fact that our membership can be pretty homogeneous.

I eventually decided to step down from e-board to learn about other non-affinity groups on campus. However, despite no longer being a part of Causa’s e-board, I do believe that La Causa is a very important space for students, both Latino and non-Latino, for building a stronger community at Amherst. I, honestly, do not know how I could have made it throughout freshman year without their support.

Yet, in comparison to other four colleges in the area, specifically Mount Holyoke, Amherst does not have many opportunities for students who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central, South America, and other Spanish cultures to express themselves and where they come from. Sure, there are cooking nights, Spanish language tables, dorms where I can choose to live and speak Spanish, and courses that I can take within the Spanish, Black, and American Studies departments (perhaps with the newly- hired Professor del Moral), but sometimes I just feel like these are not enough.

For this reason, earlier this semester at the end of October, with the aim of analyzing solidarity between different student groups on other campuses, I attended the M.E.Ch.A (which stands for Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan, or Chicana Student Movement of Aztlan) Conference at Mount Holyoke. I found many students who were actively mobilizing to encourage Latino activism, seek an end to the exploitation of the Chicana/o and Latina/o community, and promote self- determination by recruiting the youth.

I felt a really strong Latino presence at Mount Holyoke; especially, when I attended different workshops, from “Internalizing Racism” to “Matriculation as Migration: Crossing Borders as First Generation College Students”and from “Queer Chicana Performance” to “Reality of Home Displacement,” in which all of the professors were Latinos. It was honestly a breath of fresh air for me to be sitting in a classroom before a professor who looked like me and shared common experiences with me.

At Amherst, I have only taken one class with a Puerto- Rican professor. Why is it that even after Amherst’s hiring of a new professors last year, I still feel dissatisfied with the few number of professors of color that teach here in general? This is clearly an issue that has been discussed before; this issue leads me to postulate that Amherst “accepts” but has not yet fully learned how to “embrace” diversity. Why should I have to attend another campus next semester to take “Structural Inequalities,” a course that covers a comphrensive history of Latinos in the United States and has a Mexican-American professor? 

The push for “Latinidad” and the quest for justice in American politics predates the 1960s, but the Chicano Student movement of the 1960s is what ultimately trained a new generation of young activists and leaders to fight against discrimination in education and for social, economic, and political empowerment in the United States.

However, according to a Huffington Post article, student activism on college campuses across the country is just not as strong as it used to be during the 60s and the 70s (Civil Rights Movement, etc.). Mount Holyoke’s affiliation with M.E.Ch.A certainly shows that they are more politically and socially active than Amherst is, in regards to issues that deal with the Latino community. I mean, why doesn’t Amherst hold its own yearly M.E.Ch.A conference to acknowledge the 12% of its student population comprised of Latinos?

As a first-generation college student who attended a predominantly African-American and Caribbean public high school in Brooklyn, NY, I have found Amherst to be quite a different social experience. Learning in a classroom with students who are not Hispanic or black is something I rarely encountered throughout high school, aside from the many conferences and college trips I attended. Figuring out how to bring my life experiences as a Latina into the context of white academia is like trying to “fit in;” I often code switch and feel like I have to tone down my command of the Spanish language to even be taken seriously.

For this reason, I am thankful for the Multicultural Resource Center, mostly, because my initial visit to this brightly- lit space was one of acceptance; it is now a space in which I felt empowered to engage in inter-group dialogues about race, social class, sexism, and the significance of ethnic studies here at Amherst. Everyone warmly greeted me, and I was offered coffee with milk and a pastry before sitting even down with Dean Boykin-East. I briefly conversed with Nick Cream and Mariana Cruz before sitting down to hear Bokyin-East’s story.

But my reasons for attending the Café con Leche talk with Dean Charri Boykin-East on that Friday evening were two- fold: I wanted to get to know one of the few people of color who are in a position of power at Amherst a little better and to see if the MRC had truly become (although is still a-work-in-progress) one of the places on campus where I can feel supported as a first-generation student of color. And I got my answer—yes— things are improving.

There have undoubtedly been times when I have struggled to understand whether there is a strong Latino presence on campus. Said thoughts have made me feel homesick and have made me cry-out in frustration. But what I’ve come to realize is that although we are at a point in Amherst’s history where a lot of changes are being made on the institutional level (or so it seems); it will take more than only my voice to speak out about feelings of marginalization. More voices need to be heard. I am interested to see how Amherst will continue to try and tailor its standards to accommodate the social and academic needs of its Latino students, as the number of Latinos who are applying to and being admitted to top colleges across the country, like Amherst, is growing.