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Where are all the Latinx Catholics at Notre Dame?

| Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The headline of this column isn’t meant to question the piety of Domers. Or reinvigorate last year’s leggings controversy. (Though here I am wondering whether Ms. Maryann White saw the light after getting repeatedly torn down in Viewpoint opinion pieces in both seriously articulate and hilariously petty ways — hallelujah.)

Instead, I’m kicking off the year with another of those “Notre Dome is too white” pieces, this one lasering in on Our Lady of the Lake’s stated mission to “provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge,” one “enriched by the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students.”

After a year here in Rudy-land, my response is, “Well, does it?” It would seem to me to achieve such a goal, the Notre Dame community, as a Catholic institution, would, at the very least, have to somewhat represent the demographics of U.S. Catholics. But if we take a look at the numbers, it appears this isn’t the case.

In the United States, 34% of Catholics are Latinx, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report. Among Catholic millennials, a larger share are Latinx (46%) than are white (43%), meaning that that proportion of Latinx Catholics across age groups may eclipse non-Hispanic whites in the near future. Meanwhile, among Notre Dame students, only around 10% identify as Latinx, according to datausa.ioa, about 3% lower than the average for doctorate-awarding universities. I haven’t been able to find faculty numbers, but I would guess it’s as low or even lower. Gasp, gasp, surprise, surprise. 

When I spoke to professor Luis Fraga, director of the Institute for Latino Studies at Notre Dame (ILS), he noted the challenges in increasing not just offers of admission to Latinx students but also enrollment. (Full disclosure: I work part-time at the ILS.)

“There’s a clear gap between the percentage of Catholics who are Latinos and the percentage of Latino students who are undergrads at Notre Dame,” he said.

Professor Fraga told me he thinks the administration should do more to negotiate its dual commitments to being a selective institution and fostering the future of the Catholic Church, which definitely looks browner than what you get here at ND.

Of course, you don’t need stats to tell you that Catholic POC are vastly underrepresented at Notre Dame. A quick walk around campus would suffice. As would a peek at NDWorks, the bimonthly newspaper published by the University for staff and faculty. Among the six new executive administrators profiled in the latest issue, there was a notable melanin-deficiency — four white guys, one white woman and a black guy. None Latinx. I’m sure they’re all wonderful people, but if aliens somehow managed to get their hands on that newspaper and it was all they knew of Catholicism, they would think Catholic Latinx didn’t exist or were so insignificant so as to not merit a mention.

Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say. As professor Fraga noted, it’s hard — really hard — to get into Notre Dame. This year’s admission rate was 15.8%, a record low. And there are myriad structural issues keeping mi gente from getting the good grades and the test scores and the extracurriculars to even get a foot in the door. 

Pero, Notre Dame has money. Lots of money. “Di-ne-ro,” to quote DJ Khaled in my least favorite JLo song. An endowment clocking in at a whopping $13.11 billion, and an operating budget of $1.6 billion. Notre Dame has built an ethos centered on its football — I mean Catholic — identity, so I would expect it to take off the sparring mitts and put on the 16-ounce gloves. It should switch up its admission process to be more holistic, and provide students who might not have the academic capital to make it on their own with extra help once they do get in.

Beyond merely representing what Catholic communities in the United States actually look like, roping in more Latinx students and faculty might help stem the steep decline of Catholicism. Another Pew Research Center piece, this one from 2018, notes that Catholicism has experienced a “greater net loss due to religious switching than has any other religious tradition in the U.S.” 

It’s not just here in Gringolandia that the Catholic faithful are diminishing. The former pontifical stronghold of Brazil has seen the population of Evangelical Protestants explode from 6.6% of the population in 1980 to 22.2% in 2010. Other sects, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, have set up shop in Latinx communities in the U.S. as well as throughout Latin America. Personally, I can attest to seeing JW outposts in small villages in Jalisco, Mexico, as well as around the Colombian metropolis of Medellín.

The JW are there when I do my Saturday morning coffee run in the majority Latinx suburb of Chicago where my in-laws live. And they’re there Sunday afternoon when I’m hustling down the steps of Chicago’s Millennium Station to catch the train back to the Bend, smiling and immaculately dressed alongside the panhandlers and tourists waiting for their Uber or inspiration to strike.

Back to my point: Notre Dame needs to recruit more Latinx students and faculty.  Not just because of Notre Dame’s ethical commitment to diversity, but for the future of Catholicism in the United States and around the world. Fostering a more vibrant community of thinkers and doers that captures the true scope and variety of what it means to be Catholic would be a step in the right direction.

Oliver Ortega is a Ph.D. student specializing in Latinx literature and politics. Originally from Queens, New York, he has called the Midwest home for almost a decade. Through boundless cynicism, he keeps trying. Reach him at [email protected] or @ByOliverOrtega on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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