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Latino students maintain culture on campus

Amanda Gray | Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Senior Nicole Medina said the first time she ever experienced “culture shock” was when she stepped onto Notre Dame’s campus.

“Speaking for myself [as a minority], you know you’re different than anyone else,” she said.

Medina said she identifies herself as part of Notre Dame’s Latino community. Though the culture is growing on campus, a minority of 10 percent of the student body identified itself as Latino, according to Institutional Research. Latino students on campus said they are trying to identify with two sometimes-conflicting identities — their ethnicity and their place at Notre Dame.

“We bring something that other students haven’t been exposed to,” she said. “We’re all made very aware of our background.”

Sometimes it may seem like students are acting “super cultural” when they celebrate their background, Medina said.

“When we’re back home, we don’t have to think about our culture everyday,” she said. “Coming here, we have to fight to preserve our culture.”

Medina is one of the outgoing presidents for the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA), a Latino student activist group promoting social reform. The other outgoing president, senior Marco Rosales, said Notre Dame’s Latino culture is different than on other campuses, mainly because of the demographic’s small numbers at the University.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to represent our people well, and we try to do that,” Rosales said.

Allert Brown-Gort, associate director for the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) said Notre Dame made strides in the last 12 years toward a more diverse student body. ILS opened in 1999, and students and faculty look to the institute to increase awareness of Latino culture on campus.

“If you look at the U.S. Catholic Church, it’s becoming increasingly Latino,” Brown-Gort said. “One out of every three members is Latino, and under 35, one out of every two are Latino.”

He said this population growth is one of the main reasons Notre Dame should be putting a greater emphasis on Latino culture on campus.

“[ILS] is here to help the University,” Brown-Gort said. “We’re here to be a resource for the University.”

ILS researches basic issues surrounding the Latino population and provides opportunities for the community to learn more about the culture, Brown-Gort said.

“We provide cultural competency — we put what people are studying into context,” he said. “We also aim to provide a sense of community for Latino and Latino-focused people on campus.”

In 2008, University President Fr. John Jenkins reviewed two reports about diversity on campus, and Notre Dame published its Diversity Response.

“As a Catholic university, we at Notre Dame believe every human being possesses the dignity of being made in God’s image, and every culture reflects God’s grandeur,” the Diversity Statement said. “Diversity enriches our social interactions and intellectual lives by exposing all of us to approaches and frames of reference that challenge our unexamined assumptions.”

One of the biggest assets to Latino students is Latino Freshman Retreat hosted by Campus Ministry, Medina said. Held in the fall of freshman year, the retreat helps first-year Latino students build community and friendships, according to the Campus Ministry website.

Sophomore Stephanie Aguilera said the Latino Freshman Retreat provided the closest campus experience to what she is used to in her home life and culture. At the retreat, undergraduates are grouped into “familias” with “madres” and “padres” to establish the feeling of a cultural family between older and younger students.

“It’s modeled after our actual culture,” she said. “You get put into families. [The campus Latino culture] is like having a family here. You look after each other.”

Aguilera, who lives in Dallas, Texas, said she found a substitute family on campus through MEChA. Aguilera will serve as next year’s secretary for the Diversity Council and is currently trying to establish a Latino Honors Society.

“I grew closer to my culture by moving away from the border,” she said.

Aguilera said she also attends a Spanish Mass on Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in St. Edward’s Hall.

“[These Masses] are much more intimate,” she said. “Instead of shaking hands, you get a hug and kiss on the cheek.”

Before attending Notre Dame, Aguilera said she also attended Spring Visitation, a weekend-long event held through Undergraduate Admissions when prospective minority students are invited to spend time on campus with a host student.

Junior Amanda Meza is a multicultural recruitment coordinator for Undergraduate Admissions. In this position, she works at recruiting high-achieving minority students from across the country.

“During the fall semester, we concentrate on calling thousands of these potential Notre Dame students by encouraging them to apply as well as answering any of their questions regarding the school or college in general,” she said.

Meza said her family’s experiences have defined “Latino” for her.

“I am the youngest of three daughters and the first to move away for college. My parents left their homes in Mexico to start a better life here in the United States,” she said. “I must say that their struggle to offer my sisters and I a chance for higher education has been my driving motivation for a better future. … It is almost a tangible love of family and an innate pride for our culture of perseverance and strength.”

Meza said she sometimes feels isolated as a minority despite the strength of community at Notre Dame.

“Though Notre Dame is one of the most national schools, I feel that the majority of the students on campus still wind up thinking exactly the same. I am not just talking about diversity in the sense of race and ethnicity either, but also diversity in thought and beliefs,” she said. “As a Latina, I at times feel stifled in my classes and can’t help but think there is no way that my voice or what I have to say will change what they think. The problem is, no one else sees it. It is a shared struggle with not only my community, but also other minority communities.”

Medina said the Notre Dame community could only change once dialogue began between everyone on campus, no matter what cultural background students claim.

“We don’t put on our events for ourselves,” Medina said. “We’re trying to educate everyone else. If you see an event advertised, we want you to come.”

The goal of outreach groups is to end ignorance about other cultures, Rosales said.

“Being more aware of what we do works to end stereotypes,” he said. “We would like everyone to not be ignorant. Ignorance is the No. 1 reason there’s bad blood between people nowadays.”