By Leah Jones, Features Editor

 

Luimil Negrón, graduate, education, and graduate assistant for Latino recruitment and retention, studies global education and leadership at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. While Negrón has dedicated herself to working toward international goals, she also recognizes that small and local actions and organizations have far-reaching global effects. At UMSL, Negrón works with local and international students through the Hispanic Latino Association (HISLA) to make a big impact.

“[The students] are at the heart of what we are trying to do because we want to support them and bring part of the Hispanic culture to the rest of the campus,” said Negrón.

Negrón, a Puerto Rican-native, explained that the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have linguistic and geographic bases. The term “Hispanic” refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries, while the term “Latino” refers to people who come from Latin America. HISLA members hail from places as diverse as Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, as well as different regions of the United States. However, students who do not self-identify as Hispanic or Latino can join the organization as well.

“[HISLA is] made up of Latino students from different countries, as well as non-Latino students that have an interest in the Spanish language or Latino cultures,” said Alexis Ramos, junior, biology, who studies on a pre-optometry track, and serves as vice-president of HISLA.

While some of HISLA’s diversity stems from their engagement with students outside of the Hispanic and Latino communities, Hispanic and Latino heritage itself is far from homogenous. “Although many Latin-American countries share a similar culture, there is still so much diversity from country to country,” Ramos said. “There are over 20 countries that Latinos can be from, so there’s more than just Mexico. There’s also a lot of diversity in what Latinos can look like. For example, I have a friend from Cuba who has red hair, pale skin, and freckles. Another friend from Cuba happens to be Afro-Cuban, with a darker complexion. Latinos can be of any race or ethnicity, so we aren’t all going to look the same.”

Negrón said that HISLA gives all of these diverse students a place to develop a community and support system.  “[We do] anything from if a student comes up to me because they have an issue with a class and they need some help figuring something out… To creating an environment… in the university where people understand that [Hispanic and Latino students] are there, [that] they [are] acknowledged, [and] that they feel comfortable on campus,” Negrón said.  “My goal is to get students to know that there is a network of people for them, and that they are actually super cool. [I want students to know that they] don’t have to be afraid to talk to somebody, and just to get that sense of community…It’s about creating community. It’s about creating something that they know that they have us to help them in whatever way we can.”

While HISLA creates a community for HISLA members on campus, they also reach out and engage with UMSL students who may not know much about Hispanic and Latino culture. “Our organization’s goal is to create awareness about the great diversity in the students and faculty we have here on campus. We really want to educate and help create an understanding of different cultures,” Ramos said.

HISLA also works closely with the Spanish language department to bring together Spanish speakers of all levels from across UMSL’s campus. Though HISLA had done some speaking groups in the past, Negrón said that the events picked up last semester, with attendees ranging from native-Spanish speakers, to those who knew little to no Spanish. Despite the difference in proficiency levels, Negrón said that the students conversed about a lot of different topics in what she described as a “really warm environment.”

HISLA also hosts an annual meet and greet. The group’s second annual meet and greet took place in the Millennium Student Center Fireside Lounge on February 8 from 5 to 7 p.m.

UMSL students also shimmy, shake, cha-cha, and mambo during HISLA’s salsa nights. Like the Spanish speaking nights, dancers of all abilities and levels come together to learn how to dance the salsa.

“My favorite event has to be the Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration,” said Ramos. “Last year, we created a very beautiful altar on the MSC Bridge decorated with colorful paper flowers, sugar skulls, and food. The altar is a sweet way to honor family or friends that have passed away.”

HISLA also celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with the UMSL community from September 15 to October 15 ever year. In fact, Hispanic Heritage Month served as the impetus for HISLA’s formation nearly thirty years ago. Negrón researched the roots of the organization and found that HISLA originally formed in 1988 when a group of students wanted to have a Hispanic Heritage Month on campus. “It was really interesting because it wasn’t just a – it had a social function but it also had an almost activist function. They were collecting signatures. It was very interesting. We didn’t know that we were that old,” she said.

UMSL still celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. Last year, Ramos said that HISLA kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month with a Venezuelan film followed by a panel discussion which explored poverty, gender, and race in Latin America.

The first generation of HISLA – Courtesy of Luimil Negrón

Negrón added that students from all over the world attend HISLA’s events. “It’s been great knowing people from all over and getting their perspectives on things and I think that’s something that is really cool about this organization,” she said.

In addition, Negrón said that HISLA will be doing some community service work as well, including working at tutoring center for children.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was passed on June 15, 2012 under the Obama administration. Deferred action allows immigrants who meet certain standards and came to the United States as children to request that the U.S. government defer legal action to deport them for a period of time. While DACA does not grant legal status to these individuals, it does qualify them work to receive authorizations. As the New York Times reported, the new administration arrested more than 600 people last week in an attempt to deport undocumented immigrants with criminal convictions, raising questions among all students, including, but not limited to those in the Hispanic and Latino community, about what might happen to students or their family members who have been granted deferred action. Negrón  also said that the organization will hold an immigration forum. “The students want to know more about DACA, and its impact on Missouri so we are obliging, and doing some programming around that,” she said.

Though these questions weight on students’ minds, Negrón and Ramos made clear that HISLA is there to support these students and help them to understand and navigate DACA.

While Negrón has dedicated herself giving students a sense of safety and community through HISLA, she also commented on how committed the students are as well. She hopes to get even more students active in the organization. She encourages students to continue to engage with students from different backgrounds and perspectives to build HISLA’s diverse local community.

Like Negrón working for bigger changes through local organizations and events, Ramos also sees these quotidian interactions as a place for larger social change. “I hope students will benefit from [HISLA] by walking away with a wider world view of people, especially Latinos, who might look and sound different than them, by taking the time to learn about their culture,” she said.

For more information on HISLA and their upcoming events, visit https://orgsync.com/73977/chapter