Dr.Michelle Ferrez, Director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program gives the keynote address at the Latinx Heritage Month Opening Ceremony at the Michigan Union Wednesday. Sophia Afendoulis/Daily. Buy this photo.

Latinx Heritage Month 2021 celebrations at the University of Michigan commenced Wednesday evening with the opening ceremony in the Rogel Ballroom at the Michigan Union. With Latin pop music blasting from speakers, the smell of Latinx food lingering in the air and students pairing up to learn salsa dancing, the ceremony marked the first event in a month of cultural gatherings.

Across the nation, LHM is celebrated annually between Sep. 15 and Oct. 15, a period during which five Latin American countries as well as Mexico and Chile commemorate the anniversary of their independence. The holiday originated in 1968 as a week-long celebration called Hispanic Heritage Week, but was later renamed and expanded to a full month in 1988.

Every year LHM has been celebrated at the University, the program has been given a different theme, with this year’s being “florecemos de nuestras raíces,” or “we bloom from our roots.” The hybrid ceremony was attended by students in-person, with several viewing the festivities from the virtual livestream.

Anamaria Lopez, Education graduate student and the LHM student coordinator, opened the ceremony by explaining the significance of the 2021 theme. Lopez said the theme acknowledges how the historical experiences — the “roots” — of Latinx communities shape their tenacity and resilience in the present day and allow them to “bloom.”

“The (LHM) planning committee decided that we wanted to celebrate Latinx heritage by honoring the beautiful culture, vivid life and all the hard work that our ancestors and those who have come before us have put in,” Lopez said. 

The ceremony officially opened with a land acknowledgment and a welcome address from Martino Harmon, vice provost for student life. In his address, Harmon called upon attendees to reflect on the contributions of the Latinx community with those around them during the rest of the night as well as every day throughout LHM.

“I encourage you to practice inclusive leadership and celebrate your community wherever you go, whatever you do,” Harmon said. “The roots of this history, this community, reach deep.”  

In 2020, 8% of University undergraduate students identified as Hispanic, with Hispanic faculty members constituting just 4% of total faculty at the Ann Arbor campus. 

Lopez told The Michigan Daily the University has been expanding campus LHM celebrations over the past several years, though last year’s activities were completely virtual. Lopez said it is important to highlight the contributions Latinx culture has made within the U.S. to empower what is often an underrepresented and marginalized community at the University and nationwide.

“(LHM) acknowledges all of the movements and the history and the people who are of Latinx descent who have (also) made an impact within the United States,” Lopez said. “In reality, this should always be happening, but the truth is that it’s not.”

Michelle Ferrez, director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, gave the keynote address. In her speech, Ferrez spoke on her personal experience with encountering and fighting racial injustice during her time in college. 

She also described the “cultural capital” model, referring to the inherent value of non-quantifiable assets associated with a particular culture — including social justice, storytelling and aspirations — that promote social mobility. 

Ferrez gave examples of ways the cultural capital model could positively transform and equalize higher education, and challenged attendees to use their own cultural capital to improve their communities.

“We need leaders like all of you with your Latinx (perspectives) and that capital each and every one of you have, to (address) racism, environmental justice, climate issues, needs of communities with water systems, access to food … not just in our communities in the United States, but in our home countries throughout Latin America, throughout Central America, throughout the islands, the Caribbean throughout Mexico,” Ferrez said.

Jesús Galván, program manager of the University’s Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, told The Daily Ferrez was selected by a committee of MESA members on account of the relevant research she has completed about educational equality for those identifying as a part of marginalized communities.

“For one, (Ferrez) is familiar with the experience we’re trying to represent and speak about, but also, they’re part of us here at U-M,” Galván said. “So we shine light on the folks that are doing the good work and are critical components to student success on this campus.”

Lopez said MESA began planning this year’s LHM over the summer, with an important part of the preparations involving MESA’s collaboration with Michigan Dining chefs who identify as Latinx. Throughout the opening ceremony, attendees were encouraged to try different food items from the buffet which included tostones, arepas, arroz con gandules and empanadas. 

The two main chefs — Luz Ruiz from Panama and Miriam Palacio from Colombia — were also given the opportunity to explain their personal backgrounds and identities to the crowd as well as why they chose to prepare each specific dish for the event.

Empanadas, Palacio told The Daily, are usually made using corn flour-based dough. But she had experience in Colombia making the dough with flour derived from the yuca root, which makes the dish gluten-free so more students can try it.

“I used yuca to make the dough and it makes this food be gluten-free,” Palacio said. “I hope you guys enjoy … their Colombian flavor.” 

Autumn Battin-Flores, the senior associate director of retail and catering for the University, told The Daily MCatering has been collaborating with MDining and cultural organizations on campus for three years to serve authentic cuisine at various heritage month events. Flores said encouraging chefs to cook dishes from their individual cultures is a promising start to promoting culinary diversity within campus dining.

“This is their food, where their origin is from,” Flores said. “It’s an opportunity for our chefs in MDining to represent themselves in a different environment.”

LSA sophomore Victoria Hernandez attended the opening ceremony and said being surrounded by so many people excited to celebrate Latinx culture made her look forward to continuing to connect with members of the community at other events throughout the heritage month.

“After a year of being online, it’s cool to actually be in person with people, getting to meet them and see what we can get out of the school and our community,” Hernandez said. 

Daily Staff Reporters Paige Hodder and Roni Kane can be reached at phodder@umich.edu and ronikane@umich.edu.