Building A City From Our Lifeboats: Columbia’s Latinx Community Navigates Space And Identity
Written by Isabel Sepúlveda
Columbia often advertises itself as one of the most ethnically and economically diverse schools in the Ivy League. But what happens when students with these diverse backgrounds after they come to Columbia? What communities exist for them? With Latinx Heritage Month a few weeks behind us, Events Editor Isabel Sepúlveda takes a closer look at the Latinx community within the undergraduate community and what three student organizations are doing to support it.
As is often the case at Columbia, most of the issues of identity and connection within the campus Latinx community come down to space. Not physical space–though that does pose an issue for many groups–but spaces of identity and the question of who can occupy them loom more urgently over the conversation. “I don’t want to take up a space there that I maybe don’t belong in,” said Madeleine Lemos (CC ‘21) about the distance she feels from the Latinx community on campus. Though she’s attended several Chicanx Caucus meetings, her family’s experiences as 3rd and 4th generation Mexican-Americans differed from the issues faced by 1st and 2nd generation residents discussed at the meetings. Her bi-racial identity also made navigation of these campus spaces more difficult, as many of Columbia’s Latinx clubs, while open to everyone, focus on being “from a country” and celebration of that culture.
Her thoughts were echoed by Emma Gometz (CC ‘21), who described herself “half-white, half-Colombian, full Columbian.” Like Lemos, she acknowledged that as a person of mixed-race “what I go through is way different” from others who occupy these spaces. While she “[doesn’t] want to invalidate [her] own experience” as a mixed person, her consciousness of her privilege as an American and her nervousness having to prove that she’s “Latinx enough” have left her hesitant to engage in the formal campus community. “Whenever there’s a group based on identity,” she noted, “you’re always faced with that question: I am I this enough?”
Both highlighted that at a macro-level, Latinx groups rarely work together, leaving them, as Lemos put it, “disjointed and scattered.” Combined with at times poor outreach, they felt this left clubs largely unable to project a united front to the campus at large. Despite their individual hesitance, both made clear that, despite their flaws, these groups can provide a vital place for Latinx students to be themselves authentically in a university that struggles with making a home for people of color. The issues they raised were not out of bitterness or spite, but rather a genuine desire to see a strengthened community. They aren’t alone either; the three campus groups I spoke with recognized this insularity as a key hurdle in their effort to build community.
Mujeres, a Barnard organization that focuses on supporting Latinas in the Barnard and Columbia undergraduate community, is simultaneously trying to build a more welcoming community on every level and work toward greater outreach. Their meeting I attended was all about offering practical financial advice, everything from finding work on campus to investing your earnings. It could have the kind of presentation any administrative office put together, but it moved beyond that due to the specific, powerful, and culturally informed advice that could only come from other people within both Barnard and Latinx community. As members filed out, board members reminded everyone that next week’s meeting would be a meet-up with Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters (BOSS), emblematic of Mujeres’ desire to foster intersectionality and connectedness between different communities.
Afterward, I sat down with Mujeres secretary Ornella Pedrozo (BC ‘21) to talk about the group’s goals and initiatives for the year. She highlighted the club’s newly instituted first-year mentorship program, as well that night’s meeting, allows Mujeres to be a “place for [Latinas at Barnard and Columbia] to find community” and take concrete steps to make change in the Latinx community. In her view, many groups “preach to the choir” about issues like sexism, colorism, and racism but the discussion stops there. “All these injustices exist,” she said. “What are you going to do about it?” The disjointedness of Columbia’s Latinx clubs on an institutional level has not gone unnoticed by Mujeres leaders either. Pedrozo mentioned that Mujeres status as Barnard organization has led to lackluster outreach from “the other side of the street,” including from Student Organization of Latinx (SOL), the umbrella group for individual campus clubs. Mujeres hasn’t let that stop them. Pedrozo’s personal project on the board this year has been reaching out to The Brazilian Society, in hopes of fostering greater connectivity and reminding people Latinidad includes non-Spanish-speaking populations such as Brazilians and indigenous groups.
I also was given the opportunity to sit down with Grupo Quisqueyano, or GQ, the Dominican group on campus during their general body meetings (called Cafe con Chisme). These meetings are relatively new; co-presidents Isabella Lajara (CC ‘20) and Gabriela Morales (CC ‘19) both talked about how when they first joined the organization, the only time everyone in the club would meet was during the 4 to 5 events GQ hosted every year. These meetings, alongside the doubling of the size of the E-board, mark a new effort reenergize the club and, as Lajara put it, “figure out how to attract everyone in the same space at the same times.”
Members of the board and the general body shared their experiences arriving at Columbia, many from schools with significant Black and Latinx populations, and being forced to find a space. Adrian Gonzalez (CC ‘21) summed it up best: “The Latinx community itself is very divided.” Issues of race and nationality figured into all of their stories; the question of finding acceptance in certain spaces seemed to be echoes of the struggles faced by Gometz and Lemos. That this division exists in the smaller scale Columbia community, with every group focusing on their own programming and initiatives. GQ’s senior adviser and the Latinx rep for Activites Board at Columbia Maria Javier (SEAS ‘19) mentioned that she often suggests clubs turn other groups could ask for help with funding, to foster some connection even at the barest financial level.
The Brazilian Society offers a slightly different perspective. As treasurer Gabriel Franco (CC ‘21) explained, though the club began as a more traditional social space for Brazilians on campus, the homogenous nature of the club (most, if not all, are native Brazilians and many are upper-middle class or wealthier) has made the need to create a space to discuss matters of identity less relevant. Instead, they’re working to revitalize the organization and reimagine its purpose as an organization. They hope to become an educating force, bringing in speakers, academics and performers “to show the community a different side of Brazil” than they get in the media. Of all the groups, their mission was most focused on projecting outward, perhaps because questions of identity and place on campus within are less pressing.
Many noted Latinx identity has faded from the forefront of campus life, with GQ members specifically highlighting Alianza’s recent struggles for group recognition and Sabor not performing during Welcome Week. All clubs seemed to be searching for strategies to breathe life into the campus as a whole and while still building communities and achieving their individual missions. They aren’t perfect but no club is, and they are conscious of their weaknesses as they move forward.
In the end, Gometz seemed to sum up everyone’s thoughts most clearly. “A lot of times at Columbia, you’re looking for a lifeboat of people like you because there’s such an overwhelming sea of white, rich people here or rich international students. You want to cling to people who know you. I feel like a lot of groups on campus are like that and it’s so wonderful that you get a little family. But I think that we need to evolve to a place where we have that strong lifeboat and start reaching back out and say ‘We’re going to build a city in this ocean.’” Whether these Latinx clubs are still building their lifeboats or not, most have a city in mind and they’re taking steps to see it built for the next generation of Columbia’s Latinx students.
Image via Latinx Heritage Month