At the La Casa Unity Ball on Saturday, Latin Combo, a Caribbean-inspired band, played Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz’s iconic song “Carnival.” The music, punctuated with strong bass lines and trumpet accents, also had a number of people who got up to dance during the sit-down dinner.
According to LSA sophomore Stephanie Camarena, a member of the Unity Ball planning committee, music and dance are important parts of Latinx culture, and something the committee wanted to highlight at the ball.
“Any Latino, as soon as they hear some music, they’ll stand up and dance because it just flows through the blood, it just flows, it’s part of who we are,” Camarena said.
La Casa’s third annual Unity Ball sought to celebrate the achievements of the Latinx community on campus. The theme of this year’s ball was Azucár, meaning sugar, a catchphrase attributed to afrolátina singer Celia Cruz. The organization also introduced two new awards to celebrate community members that have contributed to the Latinx community through academics and service, and announced graduating seniors and graduate students within the Latinx community.
Many La Casa members said the themes of Azucár and Celia Cruz were chosen to highlight diversity and intersectionality within the Latinx community.
“We wanted to tailor this Latinx Unity Ball to encompass intersectionality, and she’s a perfect example of that,” Camarena said. “She’s afrolátina, and afrolátinas are part of the Latinx community, and we wanted to emphasize that so in a way we can also educate others, so they don’t have one single story of what a Latinx person looks like … And she puts you to dance, all her songs have been hit songs in the past, songs that people sing at their houses, it’s just everybody knows her.”
LSA sophomore Oscar Martinez, a former historian for La Casa, said the choice of Celia Cruz is a step in recognizing intersectionality within the Latinx community, particularly since La Casa is largely Mexican-American.
“It’s not the fault of La Casa that there’s a strong presence of Mexican-Americans, I think it’s just a circumstance of proximity to southwest Detroit, proximity to Chicago, those are historically very prominent Mexican-American enclaves in the United States,” Martinez said. “Because Michigan’s in the Midwest, we don’t have as many Caribbean or Southern American Latinos. I think through this, La Casa wanted to send the message that we are more than just Mexican-Americans. We want to continue to celebrate more outside the scope of just Mexicaness.”
In the welcoming statement, La Casa members talked about the outreach initiatives the organization conducts throughout the year. Camarena credited these initiatives for bringing four high school students to the Unity Ball, and said La Casa does outreach work to many Latinx communities in Detroit and Chicago, who are not typically targeted with outreach programs.
“Those four high school students were here because of programs created by student leaders, such as Yvonne (Navarrete), and a lot of the people who started La Casa — they do a lot of outreach towards high schools and the fact that high school students were here for the first time at a University event, that was symbolic of the success of those initiatives,” Camarena said.
Three awards were presented at the Unity Ball, and the winners gave speeches about the struggles and triumphs of the Latinx community nationally and on campus.
“It was very good to see the speakers stay away from reading from a piece of paper and spoke really from their heart, and that was the whole point of this event,” Camarena said. “Genuinely acknowledging the accomplishments of various people from the Latinx community, because their work is very impactful in the lives of many.”
The first award of the night, the Mildred Tirudo Lucha Award, was given to Associate Professor Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, who is the acting director of the Latina/o Studies Program.
La Fountain-Stokes talked about the national political climate and actions, or lack of action, that has negatively affected the Latinx community in recent years.
“Being Latinx in the United States at this historical moment is not easy,” La Fountain-Stokes said. “Being Puerto Rican, or a person of Puerto Rican descent in 2019, two years after the destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, is not an easy thing, particularly when the current presidential administration does not recognize our citizenship or our humanity. Being a person who lives in the United States at this moment, when thousands of undocumented persons are being deported, and thousands of asylum seekers are being turned away at the border, incarcerated or separated from their facilities, is not easy.”
La Fountain-Stokes referenced Celia Cruz in reminding audience members to find joy despite hardship.
“Celia Cruz also told us, and the Latin Combo this evening who made us dance reminded us, that ‘La vida es un carnaval, life is a carnival,’ and we will strive to find joy even amidst inequality and pain, even when we feel alone,” La Fountain-Stokes said.
The second award of the night, the Jose Celso-Barbosa Award, was given to Clinical Assistant Professor William Lopez. The award, which was announced for the first time this year, sought to commemorate Celso-Barbosa as the first Latinx student to graduate from the University’s medical school in 1880.
In his speech, Lopez reflected on a couple statements made by many Latinx students on campus. Lopez said one statement, “We’re coming for everything you said we couldn’t have,” made him reflect on structural inequalities.
“Now I remember the first time I heard this,” Lopez said. “I was taken aback, and as I reflected, I realized I did think that there were things that weren’t for me. I thought that there were certain degrees that weren’t for me, I thought there were titles and fancy letters on the walls, names that weren’t for me… But since then, like you, I am done stepping aside, and I am coming for everything you said I couldn’t have.”
The third award of the night, the Yvonne Navarrete Legacy Award, was given to Lecturer Teresa Sanchez-Snell. The name of the award was revealed at the Unity Ball, and was chosen to celebrate Ford senior Yvonne Navarrete for her contributions to the Latinx community.
Camarena said the naming of the award after Navarrete, one of the founders of La Casa and an activist within the community, was well-deserved.
“I have seen Yvonne work, and I have been part of committees that she’s been in, and I have nothing but admiration,” Camarena said. “I’m inspired by her work, she’s very strong, very resilient, she sets a good example for the rest of the Latinx community, so that’s the type of thing that we like to honor
In her acceptance speech, Sanchez-Snell reflected upon her family and upbringing, and said that La Casa felt like home.
“Whenever I’m around La Casa, I feel like I’m home again, where all the pieces fit together,” Sanchez-Snell said. “And reaching out or trying to help in any capacity comes naturally, because you already feel like family to me.”
LSA freshman Emmanuel Servin, who was recently elected to serve as program coordinator for La Casa next year, echoed Sanchez-Snell’s statements and said the organization helped mentor him.
“La Casa has been a huge mentorship process for me,” Servin said. “People in La Casa have helped me even get in to the University of Michigan, they helped my transition into Michigan, and being in a predominantly white institution, they really made the life here very social and feel as if I was at home many times.”
Martinez said the organization inspired him to learn about people with different identities.
“First and foremost, La Casa is the reason why my sense of pride in being Latino and being Mexican, Mexican-American is solely because of the examples La Casa has set forth,” Martinez said. “…That pride has kind of shaped me into exploring more of my own identity, but also to learn more about others identities and engage with that pride and culture that people have with their identity.”