Latino/a History in Oberlin
Oberlin is proudly observing Latino/a Heritage Month, which began on Sept. 15, with a series of events. Sept. 15 marks the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The month also celebrates the independence of Mexico (Sept. 16) and Chile (Sept. 18).
In 1968, Congress authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to proclaim a week in September as National Hispanic Heritage Week. The week became a month-long celebration in 1988, a month that Oberlin has observed in many ways over the years, always with the spirit and passion that sets us apart.
Since arriving at Oberlin in 1980, Professor of Hispanic Studies Ana Cara has witnessed a revolution of Latino/a identity. When she first came, “not only was there no celebration of Latino/a heritage, the concept of Latino/a was undefined on campus.”
She teamed up with Faculty-in-Residence Esmeralda Martinez-Tápia and “printed up fliers and threw together events with basically no funding.” These events usually involved collaboration between La Casa Hispanica and Third World House and focused solely on La Día de la Raza, which marks Columbus’s contact with the “New World” on Oct. 12. History professor Steven Volk gave a talk each year on the meaning of the first encounter between the Spanish and the indigenous American peoples.
This changed in the late ’80s, when Oberlin College received a grant from the PEW Foundation for “area studies,” which included Soviet Studies and Latin American Studies. Though the money allowed the college to bring in professional speakers from around the country, there were still conflicts about how to distribute the windfall funding.
“Even with some money, it was impossible to represent everyone’s interests,” said Cara. “Some wanted the month to have a political focus, some wanted an artistic one. Some wanted to focus on issues in the U.S., some were more interested in Latin America. This is still true today.”
Despite these challenges, Latino/a awareness has made great strides at Oberlin. In 2000, Hispanic Studies split from the Department of Romance Languages to become its own field of study.
Just three years ago, the College created the Department of Comparative American Studies, which, according to Volk, “created a stronger institutional base for Latino/a Heritage Month.” He also said that the event has improved “by virtue of the name. When it was called Hispanic Heritage Month it focused mostly on Spain coming to the Americas. Now it is Latino/a Heritage Month, and it stresses a U.S. multicultural identity.”
Latino/a Community Coordinator Tamara Serrano believes that focus has shifted over the years: “My understanding is that [the events] have become progressively more political and that the committee has been adamant about engaging with Latinidad from multiple but interrelated perspectives.”
The administration has also recognized the importance of Latino/a presence on campus and contributed significant funds for events on campus.
“We put Latino/a Heritage Month on the map,” said Cara. Past activities have included a reenactment of “El Grito” (The Cry), which commemorates Mexico gaining its independence from Spain in 1810. There have also been dinners catered by local restaurants, and presentations by the interdisciplinary performance artist Coco Fusco; Cuban American journalist and fiction writer Achy Obejas; and cultural anthropologist José Limón.
“The goals have been to celebrate Latinidad as quintessentially diverse, transnational and a changing phenomenon in the Americas and the rest of the world,” said Serrano. “An additional goal is to highlight the achievements and creativity of Oberlin’s Latino/a communities by showcasing cutting edge Latino/a scholarship. Ultimately our hopes are to create moments of engaged reflection and dialogue on what might constitute Latinidad within different historical, geographical, social, cultural and political contexts.”
“I am grateful that we have Community Coordinators at the MRC [Multicultural Resource Center] willing and able to give support to these kind of endeavors,” said junior Phoenix Forbes, who lives in La Casa de Español. “I’m glad that students who missed out on learning about such histories and experiences now, in college, have the opportunity.”
Oberlin students recognize the importance of having such activities: “To learn another people’s history, experiences and struggles leads to a better understanding of that people,” said Forbes. “One can never truly know and understand what another person has gone through.”
“More than anything, we have a lot to say, to voice. In our programming we...remain ambitious and big because we’d like to gain respect, acceptance on campus and be welcomed in larger numbers in the near future,” said Alianza member junior Teresita Prieto.
“The month allows me to engage with Latino/a Studies and experiences in more meaningful and critical ways,” expressed Serrano. “I like the idea of being part of a movement that explores groundbreaking Latino/a ‘works’ and develops moments to validate and create a space for it within our own contexts. I think most can appreciate how the programming increases the visibility and awareness of Latino/a issues on campus and in our worlds.”