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Cultivating ‘comunidad’

Latino groups push discrimination awareness, community collaboration

“If I had come to this country and come straight to Stanford I would have felt a lot more welcome, but I went to the real world,” said Tadeo Melean ’13. “That included a lot of discrimination.”

Melean, whose family emigrated from Bolivia to Missouri in 2001, said the discrimination his family faced once arriving in the United States went “from subtleties…to people actually yelling at me to go back home or telling me to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”

But the brunt of unpleasant experiences, he said, was borne by his mother because of her thick accent. “She often gets weird looks, or they’ll ask questions that are not directly addressing her legal status, but they’ll obviously be regarding that,” Melean said. “Or we’ll be speaking Spanish at a grocery store and people will…tell us to learn English. The nativist feeling in this country is still very much alive.”

Melean said Stanford generally seems to be a “safer environment,” where discrimination against Latinos is less obvious, but isn’t precluded.

Today, Melean is just one member of Stanford’s diverse Latino community, which blends a social atmosphere with activism on campus to create a forum where members can explore their shared history, argue for political points important to them and build connections to other groups at the University.

Activism and the National Stage

“Coming to Stanford, you assume that people are open-minded and see the world in a different way, but when they’re like ‘Oh, you’re making a big deal because you’re Latina,’ …that’s the scarier part,” said MEChA community liaison Alexandra Salgado ’11.

“We often feel that because we’re educated, because we’re in California and because we’re all kind of liberal, that [discrimination] doesn’t happen here, but I think it happens more often than we realize,” Stacy Villalobos ’11 added.

So how is discrimination reflected in Stanford’s Latino community?

Students interviewed for this article said they believed discrimination has recently increased at the national level.

Villalobos said using the term “illegal immigrant” in legislation, such as Arizona’s recent immigration law, is a cover for racial animus.

MEChA co-chair Aracely Mondragon ’13 added that in San Diego, her hometown, efforts to prevent entrance into the U.S. are apparent.

“You see a lot of [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] checkpoints…set up randomly on streets, [to] stop cars, ask for drivers’ licenses, check paperwork,” Mondragon said.

Last year, numerous Latino student groups at Stanford simulated a border checkpoint, stopping anyone wearing red to protest Arizona’s immigration legislation.

“We tabled for the DREAM Act at the beginning of the year, when it came up to vote — we put tables around campus so that people could call their senators and ask them for support,” Mondragon said.

But while students emphasized the success of that and similar events, they said the way they are set up could affect the events’ effectiveness.

“It all depends on how actions are organized,” Salgado said. “Some people would take [pamphlets] and read them, but most…would be like, “Move! You’re in my way! I’m gonna crash into you!” You wonder… ‘[are we] raising awareness or annoying people?’”

The Latino ‘Comunidad’

The existence of groups that appeal to Latinos bolsters intra-community and multicultural understanding, Salgado said.

Some students interviewed for this article said they didn’t expect to spend a lot of time with Latino groups during their undergraduate years, but they all found a wealth of outlets that allowed them to explore their roots and issues significant to Latinos.

Ballet Folklorico co-chair Bianca Alvarez ’11 said that because she came from a predominantly white high school, she had always felt different. But at Stanford, she found a welcoming “comunidad,” as students involved in El Centro Chicano sometimes refer to themselves.

“When I don’t have a place to go, I come to Centro, I hang out with a lot of Ballet people,” she said.

Aside from providing a forum where Latino students can discuss their ethnic roots, these groups also introduce students to political issues they might not have otherwise known about. These interactions often arise from collaboration between MEChA and organizations like Stanford Students for Queer Liberation and the Pilipino American Student Union.

“I can’t imagine campus without MEChA or the Black Student Union,” Salgado said. “We make people know that when something is bad for our community…we act upon it and we’re not complacent.”

Latino groups on campus said they also try to address the misperception that Latino groups restrict their membership to those within the Hispanic community.

“What’s unfortunate is that some think that if you’re not Latino, you can’t join,” Mondragon remarked. “We encourage non-Latinos to join, especially if you want to learn more about the community.”

Even for ethnic-themed residences like Casa Zapata, some people misperceive what it takes to be an “adequate” member.

“My freshman year, one of my good friends actually said at one point, ‘I don’t want to go into Zapata! I’m not Mexican enough!’” Alvarez said. “My sorority [emphasizes] the fact that we’re Latina-interest, but not Latina-exclusive.”

Alvarez also said that El Centro Chicano, which attracts a predominantly Mexican group, is making an effort to appeal to the greater Stanford community by purchasing flags and food from all of Latin America.

Although students said there is work to be done promoting discrimination awareness on campus, they note that collaboration among students groups is a step in the right direction. Similarly, they add that more, different Latino nationalities within the “comunidad” and the few non-Latino members are assets to the community.

“One of the co-chairs [of Ballet] this year…he’s from Germany,” said Alvarez. “He stayed because of the dynamics of the group.”

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