Latino community recounts generations of struggle, sacrifices made to be heard on campus

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 3:57pm

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Design by Amanda Crisci

While most University of Michigan students were preparing to watch the 52nd Superbowl last Sunday, LSA sophomore Alex Mullen, Rackham student Richard Nunn and other members from the Latinx Alliance for Community Action, Support and Advocacy had a different task at hand — finalizing their list of demands to the administration.

The list of demands was created in response to the lack of Latino representation felt on campus. In December, La Casa led a boycott against the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs Office for overlooking members of the Latino community in the search for a new associate director. In addition, the Latino community was targeted by various incidents of racial bias on campus this year, including anti-Latino statements like “F— Latinos” and “MAGA” spray painted on the Rock in September.

The list of demands was sent out early last Monday, calling for more representation in administrative levels and in the curriculum, more student services for the Latino community and a less hostile campus environment. Even though the Latino population is the University’s fastest-growing minority group­ — growing from 4.75 to 6 percent of the student body from 2012 to 2016 — La Casa feels the administration has not adequately responded to the needs of the community’s students, staff or faculty. In the wake of sending out their demands, students like Mullen and Nunn, as well as faculty members, reflected on their own experiences with underrepresentation on campus.

One of the areas detailed in the list of demands is increased support for the Latina/o Studies Program, housed within the Department of American Culture. La Casa explained the program needed more funding and access to student services because the burden of additional teaching for faculty members was affecting their ability to reach tenure.

Maria Cotera is the director of Latina/o Studies and an undergraduate adviser for the major and minor. She pointed out the lack of Latino faculty across the campus puts extra pressure on those who are versed in Latino studies because they have to overcompensate for the University’s lack of resources.

“We do a lot of advising for graduates and undergraduate students who are coming from places like Art History, Organization Studies, School of Education, Penny Stamps School of Art,” Cotera said. “I can’t tell you how many thesis committees I’ve sat on for art students. This is beyond my pay grade.”

She also explained because many Latino faculty members have to split their time between their own work and student support, it is difficult to obtain a full professor status.

“The problem is that students want to see in the administration more people who are familiar with Latinx issues in those positions, but we can’t get there because the only way you can occupy those higher-level administration positions is usually if you’re a full professor,” Cotera said. “Too many of us, especially in the Latino Studies Program, are really getting trapped at rank. We’re not getting promoted to full because time is not an infinitely-expanding resource. We have to make decisions about where we put our time on campus, and because the Latino student population is so underserved in other areas we end up having to do that work.”

Cotera also warned a lack of Latino representation in administrative positions can misconstrue the way the University understands the needs of its student body. For instance, while Cotera praised Wolverine Pathways — a program that offers full, four-year tuition to students in Detroit, Southfield or Ypsilanti who complete the high school portion of the program and are admitted to the University — she pointed out the absence of any Spanish-speaking staff members. The Latinx Student Outreach portion of the list of demands addresses this issue and calls for modifications in staffing and outreach practices of the program.

“I think that the lack of diversity in leadership, in staff and faculty, is creating a problem for the University in that it shapes how the University shapes how it understands its research agenda, it shapes how the University understands its student services, it shapes how the University understands recruitment,” Cotera said. “So when you create a wonderful program like (Wolverine) Pathways and launch it in places where there are substantially larger Latino communities and you don’t have a single staff person who speaks Spanish, that’s a problem.”

Though Cotera impressed the need for more Latino representation, she also emphasized the importance of not disparaging the voices of other minority communities in the process.

“Our claims to needing representation, our claims to wanting to see more people who have expertise in Latinx scholarship or Latinx student issues cannot come at the expense of other communities who have fought so long and so hard to have that representation on campus,” Cotera said. “One of the big challenges I think for a document of this sort, or the movement like the one now is that you must have a clear understanding of the folks that have come before you, and of not positioning yourself in competition with those folks.”

Nunn is also an adviser for La Casa and one of the founding members of Lamda Theta Phi, the University’s first Latino fraternity. Nunn shared Cotera’s sentiments and pointed out that even though there is a community in being a student of color, the University must understand each minority community has different needs.

“I think there is a danger when we lump people together,” Nunn said. “Diversity is really, really important, and I think that we understand that; but when we think students of color, that’s a very powerful term, that means something, there’s a community there. But we have to understand there are different communities that comprise that, and how is each community being supported in a unique way.”

For the Latino community, Nunn explained how a lack of Latino figures can translate into students feeling as if they have little to contribute. To address this, the list of demands also specifically calls for more commitment to hiring Latino staff members, hiring Latino senior- level administrators and a strategic plan for hiring. 

“If there’s never a Latinx person included amongst the people of color speakers we have coming out, then it feels like maybe we don’t have anything to contribute; maybe our voices, our scholarship, our intellect, our contributions aren’t important,” Nunn said.

Nunn also explained students in La Casa researched data from Human Resources that indicated that only 1.3 percent of staff members from the previous hiring cycle were Latino. This was in comparison to an incoming freshman class consisting of almost 7 percent Latino students.

“In comparison to other marginalized communities, it’s really minimal … they’re not seeing people who look like them, who can engage, who can mentor, who can support, and they’re relying on allies to do a lot of the work,” Nunn said.

Public Policy junior Yvonne Navarrete, former lead director of La Casa, discussed how it is difficult for students to envision themselves in higher positions if they feel constantly marginalized by the University.

“How can students aspire to be leaders on their campus or professionals that can have administrative positions when they don’t see that reflected and in times they see the opposite of that, people intentionally excluding us or constantly feeling like we’re silenced?” she said.

Nunn and Cotera also discussed the changes and continuities in regard to student activism in the Latino community over the years. Nunn focused on the fact that many demands sent to the administration are not so different from demands sent in the past.

“It’s interesting that the demands, while they’re written up in a different way now, they’re not really that different from previous generations of demands from the 90s or 80s or 70s,” Nunn said. “A lot of these issues have been raised in the community on campus for years.”

Cotera noted the current organization of the Latino community was one of the main differences from past years. She also attributed the current political climate and the attacks on minority communities as additional factors to student activism.

“In the early 2000s, Latino students, because they were fewer in number, were less actively organized than they are now,” Cotera said. “I think that there is a combination of the political climate which has targeted various minority populations, and Latinos are not exclusive in this. Arab-American populations have been targeted, Black populations have been targeted, Latino populations have been targeted in very specific ways but that cultural and political climate has kind of penetrated the University of Michigan and has raised the consciousness of a lot of these students around questions of representation.”

Cotera also praised current La Casa students not only for their organizing but also for their call to faculty to become more engaged in fighting for the needs of the Latino community. She named the incident at the Rock as a turning point for many students.

“The incident at the Rock really lit a fire under students who were already very well organized, and that’s important to note because it’s not as if the group arose as a result of that,” Cotera said. “There was a group that was already there that was politically savvy and organized and definitely saw that as a turning point. That group of students led faculty and staff. They were using us to be more engaged  with them; they were demanding that we attended their meetings and really engage with them at a getting-our-hands-dirty level.”

In his remarks at the New Student Convocation last year, University president Mark Schlissel condemned the vandalism on the Rock, and Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sellers sent a campus-wide email addressing the incident.

Mullen, the internal director for La Casa, is one of these students. Mullen said even though he was angered by the Rock incident, he realized it was important to use those emotions to work toward a larger goal.

“When people don’t see people that look like them, it’s disconcerting to a certain extent,” Mullen said. “The first time I really experienced any overt form of feeling racial bias towards me was the Rock incident. I felt like it was the first thing that I had created here that was just directly attacked by so much hate. There was no reason for it other than hate, so that was really awakening, and I got really angry this year; but it’s just about channeling those feelings into something more productive.”

Navarrete also explained some of the biggest challenges for Latino students were feeling like the University was not built for the success of their community and the burden of having to constantly reaffirm their position on campus.   

“I think one of the biggest barriers as a student of color, and especially as a Latinx person, is that you’re constantly being reminded through every space that you navigate that this institution was not built for you and there are actually systems or processes in place currently that perpetuate that same system,” Navarrete said. “I think that the incident at the Rock is just a representation of the fact that as students a lot of the burden of making people feel included and validating their presence on campus falls on us, and it further highlights the need for representation because, after the Rock, we had to organize and initiate conversations.”

Nunn validated Navarrete’s claim and said students are willing to make sacrifices because they want to make a difference for future generations.

“You have students who care enough about U of M and enough about future generations' students to say that we’re willing to make sacrifices now,” Nunn said. “Everyone would love to study more and enjoy more and relax more but I don’t think people feel that they have a choice because they’re kind of confronted with critical issues that they care about. So you make sacrifices, you get less sleep, you maybe don’t spend as much time working on a paper that you really want to. You make choices, and it’s really unfortunate and unfair but it is commendable and it is important to recognize it.”

Mullen explained the additional burden of fighting to be heard is not only exhausting, but also something many other students at the University do not have to think about.

“Personally, I’m really tired,” Mullen said. “We stayed in this office on Sunday before the demands went out, finalizing the demands, working on them, and making sure they were ready to be sent out. That was four hours of just finalizing a document that was already supposed to be 95 percent done. That’s a lot of work that goes into fighting for equality and inclusion that I think a lot of other students here don’t really have to go through or care about.”

Cotera also commented on the sacrifices of the students and noted the selflessness of their nature — especially because many of these individuals may not experience the full effect of their hard work.

“It’s very important to recognize that these students are exhausted and that it takes work,” she said. “But, if they’re successful in even some of the things they’re demanding, then they’re crafting a world for the students who follow them.”

Moving forward, Cotera hopes the administration will be prepared to meet La Casa’s demands with concrete solutions.

“There is the expectation that the administration comes up with solutions. They may not exactly match the requests that are in that document, but the expectation is that we see some viable solutions … It’s not a time for just listening, there’s been listening. It’s now a time for action,” Cotera said.

In an initial response, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email statement the University acknowledges La Casa’s demands and is working to decide how to move forward. 

“Vice President Harper and Chief Diversity Officer Rob Sellers will continue to work with the group and other senior leaders to be responsive to the needs of the community,” Broekhuizen wrote. “We are confident we can work together to address the concerns raised by our students.”

Recently, Vice President for Student Life Royster Harper, Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers and Interim Assistant Dean of Students Julio Cardona met with La Casa to discuss future plans and expectations moving forward. The University will continue to meet with La Casa in upcoming weeks to discuss actionable steps.