History in the Making: The Latinx Conference at Brown University

2015 Latinx Conference Participants at Brown. Photo by Taylor Michael.

2015 Latinx Conference Participants at Brown. Photo by Taylor Michael.

The 2016 Latinx Conference will take place April 8-10, 2016, at Brown University. The conference, which is being co-sponsored by Latin American Students’ Organization (LASO) and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A) at Brown, has been described as the largest gathering of Latinx students with over 200 students planned to attend from over 18 Eastern colleges and universities. According to a press release sent out: “The Latinx Conference strives to amplify the knowledge, research and agency of Latinx peoples on and off college campuses, while at the same time affirming a collective solidarity with other marginalized communities.”

This weekend’s event makes it the second time the event has been organized at Brown. The conference was supposed to have taken place last November during the 10th Annual Latinx Ivy League Conference (LILC), but it was marred by an incident when a Dartmouth delegate had a negative altercation with campus police and the conference was stopped. Later, charges were brought against the officer and he was dismissed. After the incident, students mobilized and issued a set of demands to University President Dr. Christina H. Paxson, who promised to provide funding to hold the conference in Spring 2016. A week later, Paxson established a $100M plan to counter racism and increase diversity at Brown.   Her 19-page draft action plan later became known as “Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion: An Action Plan for Brown University.”

The conference will explore what it means to be Latinx in the present social/political environment. Workshops, lectures and discussions will question the lived experiences of Latinxs in the Northeast. The conference will interrogate and deconstruct the current state of the Latinx experience, what is needed, what needs to be fought for, what activism looks like and how individuals can establish common ground in addressing communal issues. At the same time, the press release states: Latinx is a celebration of pan-ethnic identity, and includes and is not limited to Afro, Asian, Indigenous, multiracial, trans*, queer, undocumented, and international communities. The organizers intentionally use ‘Latinx’ to disrupt the gender binary and as a source of mobilization, advocacy and activism.

For this article, we chose to interview the organizing committee of the Latinx Conference who are in the process of organizing the largest gathering of Latinx students from colleges and schools along the Eastern Seaboard; a historic endeavor. Co-chairs of the conference include: Maryori Marie Conde, Michelle Cruz, Brian Elizalde and Silvina Hernandez. The members of the heads of each of the planning committees are: Alexis Rodriguez Camacho (Publicity), Liliana Sampedro and Manuel Contreras (Content), Gisela Guerrero and Humberto Perez (Housing and Registration), Patricia Paulino (Keynote Speaker), Claudia Silva (Finance) and Oscar Carrillo (Entertainment).

Miguel: How was the planning committee selected? Have some of you been involved in the conference before?

Maryori: The eight Planning Committee heads were selected by the four co-chairs of the conference. The four co-chairs were elected by members of M.E.Ch.A and the previous year’s LILC planning committee. The planning committee members are Brown students who volunteered to be in the committee of their choosing. We advertised the Latinx Conference and sent out a Planning Committee Interest Form to gauge interest and identify how many students would be involved in the planning process. I was not involved last years as part of the planning committee for LILC, but I was a delegate for Brown.

Rudy: The committees for the Latinx conference welcomed all students interested in participating in the planning process. Students were not turned away if they wanted to get involved. This is my second year on the planning team and it’s gotten a lot better since I first joined back in October of 2015. Organizationally, the process has become smoother since more people have chosen to be a part of the conference.

Chris: This is my first time being involved in the conference. I came to a few of the social events last semester because I was invited by some of my friends, but I honestly wasn’t involved with the Latinx community on any regular basis.

Miguel: The press release states that the Latinx Ivy League Conference (LILC) has been presented for the last ten years, my question is, how were Latinx students supported in the past? Did Latinx students at Brown face similar issues in the past?

Maryori: I am only sophomore, so I may not be well-informed on how to answer this question. The Spring Conference received immense economic support by President Paxson, due to LILC delegates from last semester’s demands for her to fully fund this new conference.

Rudy: Institutional memory is a difficult issue students face on this campus. I don’t actually know what Latinx students were going through in the past because no institutional record exists to document those struggles.  However, I would make the logical leap to say that students faced similar, if not worse, issues than we face today, without the same support systems. Undocumented students still hid in the shadows. Latinx studies courses were rare and Latinx faculty representation within the academy was insufficient. Low-income Latinxs worked long hours and multiple jobs to be able to pay to stay at Brown. And a shockingly low number of Latinxs were admitted to Brown, disproportionate to the number of Latinxs in the U.S.   Since the inception of the Latinx Ivy League Conferences, students have started to work toward understanding the consequences, privileges, and responsibilities that come with being at elite institutions. More importantly, students are gaining a consciousness of the importance of solidarity and coalition building across identities. Last year’s conference at Brown was a testament to that fact. Black, Asian, and Native American students stood in solidarity with Latinxs who expressed outrage against the academy for allowing a police officer to assault a Dartmouth student during the first night of the conference. Students who weren’t even participants of the conference stood with us. In solidarity, students stood with us, knowing that our fates were inextricably tied.

Miguel: Do you think President Paxson’s plan was a step in the right direction, to lessen issues of racism and to create a “just and inclusive campus community”? At Brown, there seem to be many issues that need attention, such as lack of Latinx faculty, the lack of graduate students from underrepresented groups, the lack of diversity among undergraduates and the lack of diversity of staff from historically underrepresented groups? Will the conference tackle any of those issues?

Maryori: I believe President Paxson’s plan was a step in the right direction in the sense that she seemed open to critique and comments, but it is not completely achieving its goal. There are a lot of members of the Brown community who are left out of the plan and a lot of demands that students of color presented last semester that were not implemented into the final edition of the plan. The conference will cover many issues, but one of the main components we’re trying to tackle is the issue of solidarity. How to build solidarity within Latinidad as well as with other marginalized groups, is the primary question in the conference we’re trying to answer, while also hoping to build a Latinx community within Brown and with other schools along the Eastern Seaboard.

Rudy: I think President Paxson has ultimately been receptive to student demands. There are still PLENTY of demands that have not been met, and some that did not make it onto the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, but what did make it onto the plan is certainly a step in the right direction. I do think the conference will continue to address issues Latinxs face across predominantly white institutions because the improvements happening at Brown are not happening anywhere else. The institutional changes and efforts being made at Brown are an anomaly within the Ivy League and across campuses nationwide. Efforts like Brown’s to improve systems of higher education for people of color must be replicated nationwide.

Chris: President Paxson was largely working to placate the fears of students at Brown. Her plan, although it represents an aspect of change, still functions within a very conservative, old-money institutional framework that seeks to quell rebellious attitudes with a number followed by plenty of zeros. This attempt to de-radicalize and force assimilation of dissenting and hurt students is not a new method of forced docility. And though President Paxson presented a large plan before the communities of color, and especially to the Latinx community, it has largely missed the demands that followed the last iteration of this conference, and stands as an empty offering of contrived appeasement. She’s using the right words, but until the demands of students get met, there will be no resolution with some money and some bureaucratic prestidigitation. Until we see a full-scale plan complete with immediate action to, say, change the system of DPS so that it isn’t dominated by white male police officers, then I’ll start to listen. Talk is cheap.

Miguel: Is there a large Latinx faculty at Brown?

Maryori: Part of the problem at Brown is that we do not have data concerning how many Latinx professors we have at Brown. Professors of color are all grouped into one statistic. One of the students’ demands from last semester was to disaggregate the data for the student body, but also for faculty—it has yet to be implemented.

Miguel: What made each of you decide to study at Brown?

Maryori: I decided to come to Brown, because it provided me with a good financial aid package, but also because it gave me the title I felt like I needed in order to strive in this world. As a first-generation, low-income Latina who comes from immigrant parents, I felt the pressure to go to a school that gave me some privilege in order to help my family in the future. When my Mom told her bosses that I got accepted to an Ivy League school, her bosses treated my mom differently. That was important for me—to see my Mom feel like she could show off my education to people who only saw her as a housekeeper and babysitter.

Gabrielle: For me, choosing Brown was in large part because of the community I found while touring the campus. I come from a very small town that lacked resources to support low-income students, student of color, and first generation college students, so I did not know what to expect once I started touring colleges. But while I was on Brown’s campus, I was welcomed and supported by students with identities similar to mine. I can still remember going to a First Gens at Brown Meeting and a Students of Color Welcome event and feeling like I would have this community to be a part of for the next four years and beyond. To this day, I’m still close to some of the people at met at those events, and I’m thankful for the continuous support from the student community.

Rudy: I decided to study at Brown because of the open curriculum that allowed me to explore my varied interests. The generous financial assistance was also pretty convincing.

Chris: I decided to study at Brown because although it is a primarily white institution filled with many people from very wealthy and privileged backgrounds, it is still more diverse and challenging in many ways than home (Maine). Maine is very white and I grew up relatively alone, at least in terms of racial/ethnic diversity. I used to joke that I was the only Chicano from Maine, mainly because when I told folks here I was from Maine, they didn’t seem to believe that there were even people of color in Maine. It’s true that Maine is the whitest (and oldest, by population) state in the United States. For me, coming here, and eventually staying here when I was thinking about transferring, had largely to do with the amount that the individuals who were like myself —mainly people in this community— were ready to take on and discuss and grapple with complex social and political issues that face us as Latinxs within the United States, and at Brown.

Miguel: What makes the Latinx Conference an important conference to attend?

Maryori: As a co-chair, I feel like my answer is biased, but I truly believe this conference is important to attend, because it will unite the Rhode Island community, the Ivy League community and a lot of the East Coast schools. This will provide different perspectives and tactics to battle the systems of oppression in each of their schools. I hope there is discussion between the schools in how we can support one another. It will create a large network, but also a large community. It’s an important conference to attend, because having it is a place where many Latinx students in a predominantly white institution can learn about themselves, as well as learn how to work in solidarity, and building community is revolutionary.

Gabrielle: Having been on the planning committee for the conference, I had the opportunity to work with other Latinx students and help plan content of the conference, and to select some of the speakers, workshops, and topics that would ultimately be presented. This experience was really important to me because I was able to sit down with other Latinx students and have a discussion about the issues our communities face and the importance of these conversations. I think that’s largely what this conference is and why it is significant. It is a place to engage in discussion and collective action with students from different schools and backgrounds who all want to strengthen and empower the Latinx identity and network we share.

Rudy: The Latinx conference is important to attend because it provides a space for students to work through the social and political issues permeating our academies and communities. Further, it allows us to tease out the experiences we bring from home and here (within the Ivy League). In these conferences, we aim to humanize our experiences, build bridges across differences, and mobilize for change.

Miguel: Who is presenting and what kinds of topics will be discussed?

Maryori: We have all kinds of speakers presenting: Brown Latinx professors, activists from the community and abroad, actors and students from the community. We will be discussing Afro-Latinidad, solidarity, colorism in Latinidad, self-care in activism and many more topics.

Rudy: I can’t speak specifically to the content because I don’t work on that committee, but I know we’ll discuss several themes that vary from Latinx Feminism to Queerness to Anti-blackness to Activism, and much, much more. The primary focus will be more so on the intersections of these themes.

Miguel: How many students are attending and is the conference also open to the community?

Maryori: We are expecting approximately 180 students to attend this conference not including members of the Latinx Conference Planning Committee. The Latinx Conference Planning Committee contains about 44 Brown University students. Sadly, the conference is not open to everyone. If you had desired to participate in the conference as a delegate, you had to fill out the registration form indicating which school you would be representing along with other pertinent information.

Rudy: There will be well over 200 students at this conference. It is not a public event, but we will be inviting members of the Providence community as well as local colleges from the State of Rhode Island.

Miguel: Lastly, can you provide me with a list of colleges and schools that will be attending?

Maryori: The following colleges and schools will be in attendance: Brown, Columbia, Community College of Rhode Island, Connecticut College, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Holy Cross, MIT, Mount Holyoke, Princeton, Providence College, Rhode Island College, Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Williams University, University of Pennysylvania (UPenn), University of Rhode Island, Vassar College, Williams and Yale.

Miguel: Thank you all for your time and for organizing this important and historic conference.

***

Miguel Juárez is a doctoral student in borderlands history, U.S. history and world history at the University of Texas at El Paso.  His research focuses on urban historical issues along the U.S.-Mexico border. He was formerly an academic librarian from 1998 to 2013 at SUNY Buffalo, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M, the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, and the University of North Texas. He has authored two books: Colors on Desert Walls: the Murals of El Paso (1997, Texas Western Press) and was a co-editor for Where are all the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia (2016, Library Juice Press). In attending the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Conference in Providence, RI, he came across the Latinx Conference at Brown University and decided to write about it. You can follow him @migueljuarez.

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