As I get ready to leave Stanford, I’ve reflected on the communities and people who have been a part of my Stanford experience, as well as the communities and people whom I wish I could have shared a deeper connection with. When I think about the Hispanic and Latino community, a community I’ve always strongly identified with, I am still surprised and saddened that I didn’t find more of a home there. This article is a look at my process of understanding how this happened and actions that I believe should be taken to strengthen the community in the future. These hopes and observations are the product of four years of being at Stanford, and I hope that they’re considered as these communities look to be more welcoming and inclusive in the years to come.
To the Hispanic/Latino community:
As a Latina, I’ve always been a bit jealous of the Black community. It’s strong, it’s welcoming, and it’s always hosting fun and interesting events. When I think about the Hispanic community, I feel differently. I wonder: Where is our voice? Who are we? A little while back, an article from MEChA spoke up against the Western Civ idea. My first thought was “Thank goodness,” but looking past that, I had other questions occur to me.
First of all, why was MEChA the closest thing we have to a “voice” for our community? The organization’s name is Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan — this translates to Chican@ Student Movement of Aztlan. Its very name highlights why this group should not be the voice of the greater Hispanic and Latino community. It comes from the Chicano movement, which originated in the 1960s amongst the children of Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles as they sought to develop an identity and unify in the face of the liminality and discrimination that they faced. Although I’m a big fan of the Chicano Movement — many thanks to Sal Castro, who’s the reason my mom went to college — this was not a movement or an identity that I or my parents could/do identify with. Recent immigrants, like my parents, and non-Mexicans, like my mother, did not identify with this movement because it wasn’t theirs to identify with.
Therefore, as a Latina raised more in Mexican and Colombian culture than in Chicano culture, I do not identify as Chicana. I don’t accept MEChA as an extension of my voice, and “El Centro Chicano” has never felt welcoming — slapping “y Latino” onto the glass three years into my time here didn’t magically change that. The art inside is still overwhelmingly Chicano and none of the people on the walls are even remotely similar to me in skin color or appearance. It was difficult to come to Stanford and feel like a minority for the first time, and it was even more difficult to go to what I thought would be a haven and find that I still could not escape the reinforcement of what a Mexican/Latina is “supposed” to look like. Furthermore, when I tried to become a part of the community, I was met with hostility because of my Greek affiliation from many (but not all) people. Although I’ve been lucky enough to find a community of Latinos within the Greek community, the fact that our community was so quick to fragment itself by excluding people based on things like who we choose to befriend is disheartening and works against the goal of being unified and welcoming.
Secondly, with this in mind, not only do I wish we had more inclusive spaces, but I also wish we had an active, united community. This will only be achieved when Comunidad becomes more inclusive to all of us who don’t consider ourselves to be Chicanos. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation — there can only be events that cater to us non-Chicanos when there are non-Chicanos to put them on and to advocate for them. With MEChA running the show, there will, by definition, not be a focus on including non-Chicano Latinos (because MEChA is a Chican@-focused organization). For non-Chicanos to feel welcome, we need a new, more inclusive “governing” organization, preferably one that has dedicated representatives for North, Central, and South America (although a representative from each Hispanic or Latino culture would be amazing). Moreover, our community center should be called “El Centro Latino.” Chicanos are Latinos, but only a very small portion of Latinos are Chicanos, so this naming change would be much more inclusive. Although I recognize that the community center is a tribute to the Chicano movement’s fight for a community center in the first place, that history can still be preserved and that effort can still be honored in other ways, like a wall dedicated to the history of the establishment of El Centro. The name, however, needs to be changed. A similar change in both naming and broadening of focus should happen with Casa Zapata.
Thirdly, the types of events that are held for our community need to be expanded, not only to focus on Latino cultures past Chican@ culture, but also to help people understand what it means to be Chican@ — things like an event on how Mexican and Chican@ culture compare would be an example. Our community needs to be equipped to engage in discussions, communicate, and share ideas freely. There was a point last year when our listserv was temporarily shut down by a full-time staff member at El Centro because of the discussion about Provost Etchemendy’s email (Re: Provost Etchemendy on Dialogue, the Senate’s Role, Elections, and Other Recent Community Issues). This type of censorship is not conducive to the formation of a community — if we can’t even communicate with each other freely, how can we be a strong community or form a stance and a response as a community, especially in a situation like this, where it was largely minority students who were trying to speak up?
Fourthly, and perhaps most challenging, I hope for a change in academia, including but also extending past Stanford. While doing research on feminist theory, both how it exists today and its history, I realized that when looking at minority perspectives, academia (which, as we all know, is white-dominated) will consider the Black and Chican@ perspectives in its attempt at inclusivity. As this happens, “Chicano” becomes synonymous with “Latino” — the same problem that is keeping our community here from being inclusive. Until “Chicana/o Studies” programs everywhere become “Latina/o Studies” programs (or at least expand to be “Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies” programs, like Stanford’s did in 2012), these terms will always be equated in academia and at academic institutions, thus effectively stripping non-Chicano Latinos of our voices in these arenas.
I recognize how challenging it has been to get ourselves to this point — having a community center, a themed dorm, an academic department, cultural groups, and members of our community represented in higher education. However, as we all know deep down, we can’t get complacent. Just as we always work toward greater representation in colleges, greater participation in cultural groups, and the expansion of our presence in academia, we also need to work toward growing and unifying our community by making sure all of us are represented in academia, all of us can call Comunidad our own, and all of us can find a home in this community.
— Lilliana Smith
Contact Lilliana Smith at lilliana ‘at’ stanford.edu.