Although National Hispanic Heritage Month is coming to a close, the celebration and cultivation of Hispanic cultures are a constant at El Centro de la Raza, the Latino resource center at the University of New Mexico.
Rosa Isela Cervantes, special advisor to the president on Latino affairs and director of El Centro de la Raza, said El Centro has been serving students at UNM for just over 50 years through outreach events, academic help and personal assistance.
"(El Centro de la Raza) serves as a home away from home for students and provides a safe space for students to really bridge their personal, cultural self with their academic identity," Cervantes said. "The majority of our students are first-generation (college students), so this academic identity is not necessarily something our students already come with, because it’s not something that their family has done."
Cervantes said initiatives like National Hispanic Heritage Month are important because they shed light on some issues facing the Hispanic community in New Mexico, but that the support of the community should not start and end there.
"I think we can utilize this idea of National Hispanic Heritage Month as a way to promote and highlight some things for the month, but really we (at El Centro) celebrate every day (all year round) — not just during this month," Cervantes said.
Although it’s an important step in raising awareness, National Hispanic Heritage Month should not be taken as a conflation of all Spanish-speaking people as only "Hispanic."
Rather, Cervantes said that "Hispanic" is a unifying term for traditionally Spanish-speaking populations and shouldn't be used to overshadow the diversity within the community.
"What’s hard is when people put us into this box of 'Hispanic.' It also provides this idea of 'all Hispanics are X or Y,' rather than recognizing that as raza (community)," Cervantes said. "We are the most diverse group of people that have a commonality like language — but we are of all races and all social-economic statuses."
This distinction may not be immediately obvious to some, but it's important because no group of people is a monolith. Cervantes expressed that the differences are beautiful, rather than something to ignore, and used her own cultural identity as an illustration of this.
"When people talk about being mestizo, they think oh, we’re just a mix of everybody — but we also have the strengths of everybody, and I think that that’s what’s amazing about being Latino, or Chicano, or Hispanic," Cervantes said.
Cervantes emphasized these programs that connect culture with academia are vital to the success of many students. She added that UNM is especially unique because of its groundbreaking history with the Hispanic community.
"UNM was the first Hispanic-serving institution that was also a Carnegie I Research institution, and now there’s around nine or ten," she said. "(The University) already looks the way the rest of the country is going to look like in ten years, twenty years."
Despite UNM’s trendsetting nature regarding Hispanic students in academia, Cervantes made clear that there is still lots of work to be done within the University in terms of diversity — especially within the faculty.
"We need to have more faculty of color so students can see themselves reflected in their faculty — that doesn’t mean all the faculty have to be faculty of color, but we need to have more representation at all of the different academic colleges (in UNM)," Cervantes said.
Aside from the importance of cultural awareness within academia, Cervantes also said that she believes embracing one’s cultural identity is important in attaining personal success.
"(Our identity is) the basis of who we are — not the term Hispanic necessarily — but I mean our food, our history, our traditions, our corazón (heart), our passion and our knowledge," Cervantes said.
Cervantes said in many ways, identity can lead to a knowledge of what unifies people and, in turn, a discovery of what issues people share. For the Hispanic community in the United States, that unifying issue is often immigration.
UNM is subject to SB 582, which enforces "a public post-secondary educational institution" to not legally deny admission because of a student’s immigration status.
Cervantes said El Centro de la Raza is specially equipped to help these students, as well as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — better known as DACA — recipients and students with a mixed-status household.
When El Centro de la Raza is not helping students navigate the intricacies of identity and race in academia, they host campus-wide events. On Oct. 15, El Centro de la Raza will do free HIV testing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by a closing of National Hispanic Heritage Month event in the SUB from 6:30 to 8 p.m. At the event, there will be spoken word performances, dance renditions, music and free paletas.
Ultimately, Cervantes said El Centro de la Raza is a place for all students, regardless of if they speak Spanish or identify as Hispanic, to receive help, build community and embrace their culture.
Alyssa Martinez is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @amart4447