Student activism causes University to allow Latina/o academic program

With 39 students studying in Latina/o Studies, the academic program is just about to enter its second year as an official department at the University. In November 2010, the program received its home in the College of LAS, but what some may not know is that it has actually been a 40-year climb in order to become a department.

It all began in 1974, with the formation of “La Casa Cultural,” an organization started by Latina/o students who were looking for more recognition on this campus. After a year of negotiating, the University finally agreed to give them a house, which would be designated as their headquarters.

“We wanted a place that would celebrate our rich cultures and heritage. This small house also symbolized our aspirations for ourselves, and our community,” said Oscar Martinez, one of the students behind this movement at the time, in his memoir.

Shortly after receiving the key, word got out that their building was going to be destroyed. The students then joined each other in the building and refused to leave. The students wanted to send a message, and they began to paint a mural in their program’s home, which still exists today.

The University did not knock down their walls amidst demands for a more diverse faculty and curriculum. Twenty years later, students were still not seeing their demands met and eventually took action in the form of a May 5, 1992, sit-in in which students of all ethnicities participated.

“The student activists … recognized that their demands were not being not being respected by University administrators and believed that closing down the administration building might make them listen. And they did listen,” said Alicia P. Rodriguez, advisor for the Latina/o Studies Department and a University graduate student at that time.

Rodriguez said the students wanted a Latino Studies program and also better recruitment and retention of Latina/o students and staff.

Ten years later, a similar sit-in was held once again in the chancellor’s office by students who felt enough progress still had not been made. Finally, the administration hired three Latina/o Studies professors in 2003. Isabel Molina was one of these faculty members hired and today, she is the department chair. Molina said the department was the result of years of student activism.

“It was the students over a 20-year period basically going to the provost and the chancellor, and telling them ‘We want these classes, we believe that you need to hire faculty to teach us this material,’” Molina said. “They demanded this knowledge, and they worked with other students on campus that were doing the same thing; trying to get representation in terms of curriculum. And I always remember that, I never forget the fact that the reason I have this job is because the students made it possible.”

Now the department has grown to 10 faculty members as well as 11 affiliates. Last year, nine undergraduates received a degree in Latina/o Studies, 20 undergraduates received a minor and four doctoral candidates also received minors.

Molina said the department is also in the process of starting a fundraising campaign to create an endowment so that it may give out more money to students. Currently, the department offers a $1,500 award to their two highest achieving major students.

Diana Mazuera, a senior in Business pursuing a Latina/o Studies minor, said the department’s strength is found in its excellent professors.

“I have been taught by not only people with Latino understanding but individuals who hold doctorates in their area within the field,” Mazuera said. “Honestly, all have such an enormous passion for what they teach that it is impossible to not be inspired by them.”