Alan Prieto, a native of Mexico, and Daily Trojan staff member, has never felt comfortable with calling himself Latino at USC. Though the university has a large Latino community, with more than 20 student groups geared toward Latino students, Prieto feels as if the organizations often force all who fall under the Latino umbrella into one entity.
“I don’t like the term Latino or Hispanic, let alone Chicano — it’s very homogenizing to a whole culture,” said Prieto, a senior majoring in art history and critical studies. “Let’s try to differentiate between being Mexican and being Latino.”
Before his move to the United States in the seventh grade, Prieto commuted to a California school from Mexico five days a week and learned English and Spanish simultaneously. His upbringing shows just one facet of the diverse Hispanic and Latino community at USC, a community that has grown to represent 14 percent of the entire USC student population.
This 14 percent is made up of thousands of students who come from many countries and cultures. From second-generation Mexican-Americans to first-generation Peruvian- and Ecuadorian-Americans to Brazilian internationals, the USC Latino student body is one of variance. But that diverse student body is often blurred.
“It’s not like I’m trying to be political about it and want to try and avoid being a part of those organizations,” Prieto said. “I just don’t think that they represent who I am.”
Prieto’s issue is not uncommon. He’s one of many students who said they found themselves marginalized into being categorized as “Latino.”
“Although these students tend to have many things in common, they themselves are very diverse as our community is represented by Mexico, Central America, South America, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico,” said William Vela, director of USC’s El Centro Chicano, a department in the USC Division of Student Affairs aimed at helping the Latino community at USC, in an email to the Daily Trojan.
Geography is not the only element dividing Latino students. About 50 million Hispanics and 11 million undocumented immigrants currently reside in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center. In California alone, about 38 percent of the state’s population identify as Hispanic or Latino according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Then you have folks who are multiracial, first to fourth-generation, various religious affiliations as well as social class variance, amongst tons of other factors that make our community extremely diverse and not monolithic,” Vela said in an email.
Many students feel the term Latino, as unifying as it can be to a segment of the population, is also limiting to the diverse cultures that lie under its domain. As Latinos at USC have faced numerous challenges ranging from misconceptions and to friction within the community, many students said identity plays an important role in their lives.
“Who’s this guy?”
“When I hang out with my friends, they all speak Spanish,” said Isadora Costa, a junior majoring in economics. “But I don’t.”
Costa, an international student from Brazil, found that in the United States, the terms Latino and Hispanic are often used interchangeably, even though it is possible to be considered Latino but not Hispanic, Hispanic but not Latino, or both.
Those who identify as Latino have cultural roots in a Latin American country in the Western Hemisphere, while Hispanics are those who speak Spanish, which can include people from a number of countries around the world. But many students feel that the diverse Latino student body at USC is often written off as solely Mexican.
Jessica Vidal, a senior majoring in political science and sociology, has often been mistaken for Mexican even though she is a first-generation American whose family is originally from Ecuador and Peru.
“I always get mistaken for Mexican on campus,” Vidal said. “When I first got to USC it was the strangest thing that everyone automatically assumed I was Mexican because I was Latina.”
But the perception of homogenization doesn’t capture the many countries that the term Latino applies to.
“A lot of the time, people think, ‘Oh Latino, oh you’re Mexican,” said Priscilla Hernandez, a sophomore majoring in international relations. “[Latinos] are very similar in some aspects but we’re so different in others; we have different types of culture, different types of food, different traditions — even the way we speak is different.”
Hernandez grew up in West Covina, Calif., a town with a population of 53.2 percent Latinos according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“People are multiracial,” Hernandez said. “I think people just don’t know. They haven’t really learned a lot about Latin American history.”
Stephanie Aceves, co-assistant director of the USC Latino Student Assembly, said that LSA is trying to change this misconception.
“The Latino community is typically viewed as being just everyone has the same problem, the same thing, and there’s no way to generalize it,” said Aceves, whose organization works to support Latino students. “[LSA’s] main focus is more visibility to be able to educate others to know that there’s more than just Mexican. There are a ton of different cultures that don’t get a lot of attention.”
Sometimes, these misconceptions even come from within the Latino community itself. Though Spanish is his first language, Undergraduate Student Government President Christian Kurth, who is half Mexican, said other Latinos on campus have dismissed him as being Caucasian.
“I was part of the Latino Alumni Association and, to be honest, when I go there, sometimes I feel like people are like, ‘Who’s this guy and what is he doing here?’” Kurth said.
Kurth’s mother is a first-generation American from Mexico, and attended USC along with his aunt and uncle.
“We’re all Latinos regardless of how you look or what part or what kind of Hispanic you are or if you speak Spanish,” Kurth said.
The dichotomy between the unifying term and the cultures that fall within it, however, has led to some Latino students feeling alienated from the greater Latino community. Vidal grew up in Westchester, N.Y., where Caucasians comprise about 75 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I feel like I have a very different background,” Vidal said. “A lot of the Latinos here are Mexican-American and I grew up in a suburb with not many Latino families and grew up in a very Americanized way.”
Many students said the detachment that Vidal describes also exists within the international Latino population, in which many students report feeling estranged from the Latino American community.
“The difference between Latinos that are American and international students is huge because even though you are considered a ‘Latino,’ you were raised in America, so you have their culture and values,” said Kim Robles, a sophomore from Mexico who is majoring in business administration. “In contrast, international students were raised in their countries so they are used to having the Latino culture, values and perspectives.”
El Centro has been working to integrate more international students into its group but finds the cultural divide difficult to overcome.
“With respect to the international students, there’s a matter of cultural perspective,” Vela said. “[Domestic students have] grown up here, we’re very much part of the United States, we’re American. International students are really international students.”
Self-segregation and self-empowerment
Last year, USC’s El Centro Chicano celebrated its 40th anniversary. The organization, housed in the Student Union, aims to provide “personal, social and academic support through graduation and beyond,” according to its mission statement. But El Centro is only one of more than 20 organizations on campus that caters to the Latino student community, a community that keeps growing every year.
Hispanic/Latino students make up 14 percent of the USC undergraduate student population. Though this number is considerably higher than many other private research universities such as Duke University, whose Latino population is 6 percent of its total student body, students still feel the pressure of being a minority group at USC.
“Many [students] inform me that they do not see an overwhelming presence of Latino students at USC, walking around campus and in their classrooms,” Vela said in an email. “That is why they come to USC El Centro Chicano, to make those connections and find a supportive and familiar community where they receive cultural as well as academic support via various resources, services and programs we provide.”
These services include referrals for academic advising, counseling, career help, as well as a speaker series and local field trips.
El Centro has become a home away from home for many Latino students searching for a way to acclimate to college life. As a spring admit, Hernandez joined El Centro during her first semester in search of a community that better reflected the one she grew up in.
“It was a shock when I came to ’SC because I’ve never seen so many Caucasian students,” Hernandez said. “I felt so out of place, I needed to find a little place, a little niche. When I started working at El Centro, I made friends a lot faster.”
Groups such as El Centro have often been subjected to accusations of self-segregation, since they are aimed toward a specific ethnicity.
“I actually had a student in one of my classes who was in a Latino frat and he said that the Latino Greeks often close themselves out to others,” Vidal said.
But supporters argue that cultural groups are imperative to help students feel comfortable and help adjust to an incredibly diverse university. As a member of Lambda Theta Nu, a Latina greek sorority, Hernandez has been accused of closing herself off to the wider community.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you in a Latina sorority, isn’t that kind of segregating yourself?’ To me, it’s a sense of empowerment, because I feel more comfortable with people who understand my cultures and traditions,” Hernandez said. “I just wanted to find people who were more like me.”
In 1974, the university created the Latino Floor residential program, which allows freshmen students to live on a floor centered around Latino culture that provides a supportive atmosphere for Latinos through community service initiatives, cultural, academic and social activities as well as just being a home away from home.
“It’s still a reality and feeling of being underrepresented and not the majority,” Vela said in an email. “So when at the end of the day, they come home to something familiar, it’s reassuring and conveys to them that they are part of the USC community, they belong and therefore they engage, become involved and ultimately find their grounding at USC so they can be successful as they approach their sophomore year.”
The floor, however, is not limited to only Latino students.
“Some have grown up around our community and want to continue that experience, others have not at all and want that experience,” Vela said in an email. “Some want to have a community where they can continue to practice speaking Spanish.”
Hernandez said she finds the claims of self-segregation to be unfounded.
“Caucasians hang out with Caucasians all the time and no one tells them that they’re segregating themselves,” Hernandez said. “So why can’t I hang out with my Latina friends also?”
The importance of education
The United States’ growing Latino population is on track to set a record in the rate of Latino college enrollment. According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of Latino high school graduates enrolled in college in 2012 — two points higher than the Caucasian population.
In 2000, the Latino high school dropout rate was 32 percent. In 2012, however, the dropout rate fell to 15 percent. According to NBC, a poll by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions showed that 51 percent of non-Latinos think Latinos can be “very” or “somewhat well” described as “welfare recipient” while 50 percent think that Latinos are “less educated” and 44 percent believe that Latinos “refuse to learn English.”
Prieto defies those stereotypes. After spending the first 13 years of his life commuting from Mexico across the border to attend school in the United States, Prieto’s family moved to El Centro, Calif., so that he and his older brother could attend public school and ultimately attend American universities. Since his father was not an American citizen, Prieto lived with his mother and brother in the United States while his father visited on alternate weekends.
“Both of my parents were really supportive, they wanted me to go to an American university rather than a Mexican one so we moved to the U.S.,” Prieto said. “We were well aware of the efforts they did.”
Prieto is not alone. Hernandez’s parents emigrated from Mexico and worked as janitors, in bakeries and in factories until they learned English in community college. Her mother is currently a third grade teacher and her father works for a dispatching company.
“My parents have always pushed education,” Hernandez said. “My dad because he never got an education and he always regretted that, and my mom because she did and knew that it could open doors for me. It was a given that I was gonna graduate high school, it was given that I was going to go to college.”
Kurth’s mother grew up on Normandie Avenue, minutes away from the University Park campus. His mother’s side of his family attended USC decades ago, albeit for different reasons.
“Pretty much the only reason why my aunt and uncle went here is because they got full-ride academic scholarships,” Kurth said. “My grandpa had to stop working and they were very low-income. It really shows that hard work does pay off and that’s always been instilled in my household. Don’t allow yourself to feel disadvantaged. No matter what your background is, you can do it.”
At USC, Kurth has excelled, winning the 2013 election for Undergraduate Student Government President. He hasn’t forgotten how hard his parents worked to make his successes possible.
“[My family] always expected us to go to college,” Kurth said. “They did a lot for the family because their parents didn’t speak any English.”
Finding their niche
Today, the heterogeneous population comprising the Latino student body is still searching for a niche within the USC community.
“It’s almost a blessing and a curse that there’s so much to get involved in,” Kurth said. “There’s all different kinds of people that all fall into this Latino thing.”
Vela said students who identify outside the traditional Latino norm have begun to organize clubs and groups, such as the USC Brazilian Club. Costa even made a USC Brazilians Facebook group to connect on campus.
Hernandez said she wants Latino students to realize their full potential at the university because there’s a lot to get involved in, and the community is open to everyone.
“At the end of the day, every Latino kind of makes their own experience here at USC,” Hernandez said. “Everyone is going to have unique experiences but you shouldn’t be closed off to something. So I think just be open to all the new experiences and see what fits you and what doesn’t.”
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