With graduation day less than six weeks away, a recent student petition demanding the name Raza Grad be changed due to its alleged racist and exclusionary nature is quickly garnering momentum, with over 200 Columbia University students and alumni having signed the request, a reflection of the larger conversation taking place with Afro, Indigenous, queer and non-binary people from different Latin American countries fighting for recognition and representation.
Raza Grad is one of several events organized by the Ivy League university, outside of the general graduation. It aims to give families and friends of graduating students a space to celebrate the diversity they bring to the Columbia landscape. The name is grounded in the Chicano movement of the last 50 years.
But to the authors of the petition, all non-Mexican, the term “Raza” either doesn’t mean anything to them or is perceived as a slur or derogatory term in their own countries. The student community is set to discuss this topic in their upcoming town hall on April 22, where representatives of Columbia’s multicultural affairs office will be present, according to students.
“The term… perpetuates and reinforces the Mexican hegemony that permeates current conversations in the U.S. regarding the Latinx community,” reads the petition, which started circulating among several student organizations last Friday.
“Latinx Grad is about including Latinx individuals. We should not conflate Latinx identity with Mexican identity. We should celebrate the diversity of the Latinx community and not promote exclusion, especially at a time when right-wing media is conflating Latin American countries in Central America with Mexico, referring to the northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as ‘Mexican countries,’” it reads.
The push to change the name started last Wednesday during a party, when Columbia senior Dafne Murillo López saw a post about a fundraiser for Raza Grad on Facebook. Of Peruvian origin, Murillo was irritated by the name and commented that she thought the name “Raza” should be taken out and changed to Latinx Grad. The message resonated with others, including an Ecuadorian student who wrote he had tried to convince his family to go to the event, but they had turned the invitation down because they thought that behind the name there was a white university administrator who assumed all Hispanics were Mexican.
He isn’t the only one. David Oliveros Gómez is a Colombian international senior who also does not feel represented by the term “Raza”.
“It’s Mexican-centric, and we feel like it is not inclusive of many identities in the Latinx community,” he told Latino Rebels.
Also, in Chile the phrase “qué mala raza” is used pejoratively for Chileans of Afro heritage, Murillo López said.
Manuel, another Colombian senior who identifies as mestizo, isn’t reflected in the term, he told LR.
As for Murillo López, who has a strong connection to her indigenous roots in Peru (she can trace them to a Quechua-Lamista community in the Amazon and to an indigenous community in the Andes), she finds the idea underlying the “La Raza” concept disrespectful and anti-indigenous.
“It stems from this place that the day Columbus discovered America is the day the Latin American race was created because it was the day that European blood came in contact with Indigenous blood,” she said, “as opposed to acknowledging that Latin America is a diverse region with several different identities that don’t necessarily all stem from Europe. So having that association of El Día de la Raza [Columbus Day or Day of the Encounter of Cultures] being necessarily linked to European colonization, I wouldn’t want that to be the connotation behind our graduation.”
The “Raza Grad” name is actually just a few years old. It was decided upon in 2016 by students graduating at the time, who made the switch from the original name “Latino Grad.” But according to the petitioners, that conversation was driven by cis Mexican or Chicano straight men who argued their identities weren’t represented in the gender neutral name “Latinx Grad” that was offered during the discussions.
Non-seniors were aware of the panel discussions taking place, but they didn’t feel it was their place to demand their voices be heard. But the seniors from 2016 have graduated and moved one, and many of this year’s class wants la Raza out and another alternative in. Currently, Latinx is the one with the most traction in the petition’s poll.
Just a few weeks ago, the 50-year-old Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (MEChA) decided it might change its name after a push from several chapters to remove the terms “Chicanx” and “Aztlán” (the mythical homeland of the Mexica or Aztec indigenous people), due to similar reasons voiced by the Columbia petitioners.
The students at Columbia said they had exchanged emails with the school’s multicultural affairs representatives, and that their response has been open and amenable to change.
“Multicultural Affairs is happy to revisit the name and is always open to shift programming, as both the community and its conversations evolve,” a Columbia University spokesperson told Latino Rebels.
The most popular alternatives to substitute “Raza Grad” are currently “Latinx Grad,” with 80 percent of the voter support. “Latin American Grad” comes in second. The question is, with graduation less than six weeks away, is this change feasible on practical terms? The petitioners think it is doable, since the student committee in charge of organizing the graduation is yet to be formed.
“As a non-Chicana, I want to empathize with the idea of this Aztlán movement and its political significance and historical significance for the older generations of Chicanos, and I understand that it’s a tradition of identity that was also born in the U.S.,” Murillo López said. “But I think that the newer generations are being more aware of how their oppression does not give them a right to overlook the oppression that they are perpetuating themselves.”
Emily Corona is a digital intern at Futuro Media. She is a journalist and translator from Mexico City, pursuing a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She tweets from @daminijo.