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Unheard Voices on Campus: Hispanics, the Other 12%

By Belén Bonilla | 5/12/16 4:46pm | Updated 5/15/16 7:57pm
Jaclyn Merica / American Word Magazine

According to the government, being Latina makes me a minority - but I never felt like one until I left home for college. In my hometown of San Antonio, Texas, 63 percent of residents are Hispanic. Everywhere I went, I saw people who looked like me. My friends understood the difference between homemade tortillas and Chipotle’s paper-like tortillas. My family and I celebrated life and culture at Fiesta parades every April, and speaking “Spanglish” was the norm.

During high school, as college application deadlines approached, the truth began to set in. I realized something that many students of color do not notice until they step foot onto a college campus: every college I applied to had a white population that vastly outnumbered the populations of students of color combined.

I wanted to choose a university solely on academic opportunities, but I feared that my prospective school would not feel like home. Facing the facts, according to the Pew Research Center, only 15 percent of Hispanics aged 25 to 29 have bachelor’s degrees. This percentage pales in comparison to the 20 percent of blacks, 40 percent of whites and 60 percent of Asians that hold bachelor’s degrees amongst the same age group. Latinos are underrepresented on college campuses, and whether I moved 15 minutes or seven hours away from home, my reality was going to change.

When I chose American University, one friend told me that I was lucky because of how “diverse” AU is. I was lucky that there would be 12 percent Hispanic/Latinos, and not the 3 to 7 percent I would find at most universities. Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely excited. Choosing AU meant meeting people with diverse backgrounds who would challenge me to see other perspectives. It meant coming to a place where ambitious people from all over would be accepted, included and tasked with making a positive difference in the world.

I said goodbye to my favorite breakfast tacos and hello to plain bagels with cream cheese.

The culture shock hit me during my first semester. I was baffled by how hard it was to find people who understood what I was going through, and how muted Latino voices were on campus. Before coming to college, movements like La Raza and El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán seemed like issues of my grandparents’ day. I began to see why fighting for a voice and inclusion is important when you are so underrepresented.

Yet, Hispanic/Latinos are the largest minority group on campus, representing 12 percent of the student body according to College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges. Should AU’s Latino students be vying for inclusion, or empowerment?

Emily Dominguez, a Latina from Illinois and freshman in the School of International Service, suggested the latter. “Inclusion? I honestly don’t feel like this university caters much to it. I know there are diversity workshops and all of those kinds of things, but I don’t feel included. As Latinos here at AU, and as a human being, we are pushed to just assimilate to our surroundings, and make the best of it,” Dominguez said. “I think empowering our community is better than just including us.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. AU’s mission statement aims to “integrate students into a diverse learning community” through inclusion, not empowerment. Many Latinos feel that the university fails to adequately address even this. Moving away from home is an overwhelming reality all freshmen face, but having to undergo culture shock on top of that can make things harder for minorities.

“When I first came to AU, I felt a culture shock,” said Sheila Escobedo, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, Latina from Mexicali, Baja California and member of the Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad Lambda Pi Chi Sorority. “Coming from a household where I mainly spoke Spanish with my parents and brothers, that was an issue I faced… here, some of my friends speak formal Spanish, or they are studying Spanish, but no, it is not the same. Another thing would be food. I’m still looking for the best Mexican restaurant around here, but I am kind of giving up on that,” Sheila stated.

It is truly shocking that in a community where many Latinos are struggling to find themselves, a Latino voice standing in solidarity with inclusion remains unheard. Diana Sanchez, a Latina and freshman in the School of International Service, said, “The Latino voice talks about things that make people uncomfortable, that people don’t want to talk about, maybe issues like immigration and equality. No one wants to talk about that, because no matter how progressive people think they are, there are still sentiments that aren’t as inclusive.”

What can be done by the administration and campus leaders to ensure that Latino voices, along with other minority voices, are included and empowered? The AU Student Government recently released its “State of Diversity and Inclusion at American University” document, championing its role in enacting mandatory cultural sensitivity training for residential staff. While this was a small victory for Latinos and other minorities on campus, many Latinos feel our school still has a long way to go.

“They can say that they went to diversity training. But ultimately, that doesn’t get at the deeper not only systematic issues, but even some of the institutional cultures that perpetuate exclusion,” said Arthur D. Soto Vasquez, a Latino and PhD candidate in the School of Communications from Texas. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s a great start, and if it can be student led and student imagined, I think that’s great. But I would also say that there has to be much more on-the-ground change.”

The Latin American Student Organization (LASO) is one safe space for Latinos that celebrates different backgrounds. “We want LASO to be your home away from home,” said LASO’s President, Clarissa Garcia. “I applaud difference. At LASO, we are very invested in the cultural awareness of Latinos. We’re not all going to have the same views because we come from different places, but we want to engage in events that celebrate and uplift our cultures because that is what promotes a culture of inclusion.”

Should not all of American University feel like a home away from home for Latino students? Latinos may never taste the institutionalized privilege white Americans are greeted with in educational, professional and personal endeavors, and it may be some time before we overcome the barriers that face our community. Do we not deserve to feel included and empowered while overcoming these obstructions?

As Latinos, we can change the statistics of educational achievement for our community through hard work, and we can promote a culture of inclusion for ourselves and other minorities. As a university, we can and should be leading the movement for diversity and inclusion. If we celebrate the assets Latinos bring to the table, rather than molding these assets into societal norms, AU can bring radical and unprecedented change across the nation.