By Daevan Mangalmurti and Brian Reyes

A mural is painted on the exterior wall of 301 Crown St. in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts a three-tiered human pyramid: laborers and construction workers supporting janitors and musicians supporting businessmen and students. Behind these people, in their brightly colored shirts and skirts, looms a blocky stylization of a black eagle.

The eagle—a symbol of the Chicano United Farm Workers and before that of the Aztec empire—points to what this building is: La Casa Cultural, The Latino Cultural Center at Yale.

The center’s mural was painted in 2002 by Maceo Montoya and Francisco Delgado to celebrate “the unification of the Latino Cultural Houses,” and the coming together of social class and national background it heralded for Yale’s Latinx students.

Latino Cultural Houses? Yes—before there was one Casa, there were two: the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the Chicano Cultural Center. In a process driven by students and then-Chicano Cultural Center Director Rick Chavolla, the two centers were merged into La Casa in 1999-2000. The consolidation raises two questions: Why were there two centers? And why does only one now exist?

The original name of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, established in 1974, hints at an answer to the first question: La Casa Boricua, Inc. The word Boricua comes from the indigenous Taíno Boriquen—not from Spanish, the language and culture that defines the Hispanic/Latino category on the modern American census. When the center was founded, Hispanic/Latino identity was barely nascent. The Spanish-speaking cultural identities of the 1960s and ’70s could instead be separated into two groups, each shaped by its own cultural movement.

The first movement, coming from Puerto Rico and New York City, was the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican Movement. Energized by associations with African-American activists in New York, where “both [African-Americans and Puerto Ricans were] disproportionately consigned to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder,” the movement focused on ending poverty and marginalization in Puerto Rican communities. It asserted a distinct Puerto Rican-ness, which can be seen in documents that survive from the period when the Puerto Rican Cultural Center was founded. A journalist, writing to then-Yale President Kingman Brewster, pleads for greater recruitment of Puerto Rican faculty on the grounds that “we as Puerto Ricans are in need of great leadership” to redress historical discrimination. Anti-Black discrimination is mentioned in the letter, an acknowledgement of ties between the Civil Rights and Puerto Rican Movements. But there is no mention of Latinos or Hispanics. The same is true in a separate statement from Despierta Boricua (DB), the Puerto Rican student organization, against “the often blatant discrimination that exists against the Puerto Rican at this university.”

Today, Despierta Boricua’s Facebook feed is filled with partnerships with other Latinx groups and intersectional societies—including the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), the group representing Yale’s Chicano students. Just as the push for the Puerto Rican Cultural Center was led by Boricuas, rather than Latinxs, the fight for the Chicano Cultural Center, established in 1981, was a Chicano struggle, born from the second “Latino” cultural movement of the 1960s and ’70s—the Chicano Movement.

Like Boricua, Chicano is an identifier of indigenous (likely Aztec/Nahua) origin; although Hispanicized, it is phonetically non-Spanish. Applied to the nominally Mexican-American inhabitants of the former Mexican territories that now compose the Western United States, the word described a heritage Chicanos felt was just as distinct as that of the Boricuas. Like the Puerto Rican Movement, the Chicano Movement was inspired by the civil rights struggle; one 1970 newspaper headline reads, “CHICANOS TURN TO BROWN POWER: FIVE YEARS BEHIND THE BLACKS, BUT WE'LL CATCH UP VERY FAST.” But it was also tied to the labor struggle, through the United Farm Workers, and mixed calls for Chicano studies and rights with protests focused on improving the general socioeconomic lot of Chicanos.

The Puerto Rican and Chicano movements had a great deal of similarities: both sought to improve their members’ social status; both grew under the canopy of the Civil Rights Movement; and both drew on indigenous, rather than Hispanic, roots. But they were separated by time and space. The border crossed Mexican-Americans fifty years before the U.S. claimed Puerto Rico for its own. Although both were strongly shaped by colonialism and the Spanish Empire before U.S. conquest, each drew on distinct indigenous histories. After conquest, Mexican-Americans, by virtue of their geographic proximity to the existing states, entered American society far quicker than Puerto Ricans ever have—the island has always been a sea’s length away from the mainland U.S.

When the Chicano and Puerto Rican movements did emerge, they did so at diametric ends of the continent.  Chavolla told The Yale Historical Review in an interview that “the perception was that Puerto Rican students were coming primarily, if not entirely, from the East Coast and from the island itself. And the Chicana/Chicano students were coming from the West Coast and Texas.” Different pasts, different presents, different places. These were the three reasons that Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, when they received their cultural centers, did so separately and not together.

Why, then, a quarter-century after the founding of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, would that center give up its heritage, merge with the Chicano Cultural Center, and be reborn as the Latino Cultural Center—neither Chicano nor Boricua?

The answer to that question is tied to the emergence of the Latino/Hispanic identity, which covered both Chicanos and Boricuas under its umbrella. Even as the Chicano and Puerto Rican Movements were asserting themselves, immigration to the U.S. from Latin American countries was rising. First came Mexicans, rather than Mexican-Americans; then Cubans, after the Cuban Revolution; followed by Dominicans seeking work and Colombians leaving conflict; and a still-steady stream of Central American migrants fleeing disasters and violence linked to U.S. meddling.

When students from these countries began to arrive at Yale, they found themselves in a nebulous zone. Neither Chicano nor Boricua, but without the numbers or history to earn a center of their own, they were free to interact with either center. But it was apparent, according to Chavolla, that neither center was designed with these non-Chicano, non-Boricua Latinxs in mind: “They engaged somewhat awkwardly and somewhat tentatively.”

As the diversity of Latin American identities in the U.S. increased, so did the U.S. government’s confusion. Until the 1980 census, Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Latin American countries were considered white. But that category could not be indiscriminately applied to the multiethnic community of Spanish speakers that was taking shape in the country. An alliance of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and civil servants decided to coin a new term: Hispanic. Soon to be paired with “Latino,” the identifier was meant to unify communities that, for all their differences, shared a lingua franca and a set of needs. The momentum of this change in nomenclature was felt at Yale, as in the rest of the U.S. “What we then called Chicano,” said Sam Chauncey, a pivotal administrator at Yale during the last century, in a recent discussion on Yale’s history, “we now would call Latino.”

The year the consolidation of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the Chicano Cultural Center occurred—2000—was the same year the combined “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” category first appeared on the census. The link between the two events is strong. As Hispanic/Latino was popularized, people who fell under that aegis, from Mexicans to Puerto Ricans, Argentineans to Venezuelans, did not forget their national origins. But they learned to use twin identities, to accept both the homogenizing identifier and their more specific one. As the process of simultaneous identity coalescence and fragmentation took place, and as the number of people who could be called Latinos multiplied, two distinct cultural centers for two distinct identities no longer made sense—because there were no longer just two distinct identities. There were instead dozens of fragmentary identities that, like magnets, could be stuck together or pulled apart—but which had been placed in the position to be attracted to each other by the rise of “Hispanic/Latino.” Students, faculty, and administration—some quickly, some slowly—came to understand that the Latino Cultural Centers needed to join forces to serve this newly unified community.

Chavolla said, “even to the students who had first been sort of reluctant about it, they were realizing that it didn't really match the reality they were experiencing. They were seeing that they were already spending a lot of time with Latinx students from diverse backgrounds and they were already doing a lot of co-programming. There were already a lot of co-sponsored programs between DB and MEChA. There were a lot of common issues that we were all facing. I think that was a big part of it as well. People, over the course of those months, started to recognize that it made sense from a cultural logic standpoint as well.”

The building La Casa calls home was previously the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. It was chosen by the Afro-Nuyorican student leader Orlando Rivera as an act of reclamation: making a former Yale Psychology building a home for Puerto Rican students. To balance that side of the building’s history, MEChA proposed the painting of a mural celebrating Chicanos on one of its walls—Montoya’s mural. Today, La Casa has grown into a home for many ideas of Latinidad. In 2002, though, the mural was a major step: “the first real act of us as one house”—and one people.

The picture wasn’t entirely rosy. Marco Davis, YC ’92, was cognizant of developments on campus and remembers alumni criticism of the new cultural center. A considerable number saw the change as a reduction of the community’s power: they went from having two physical spaces and two heads to one of each. Davis says that this perception was largely the result of an “us versus them” attitude that many Latinx alumni had felt towards Yale’s administration since their time on campus.

In the mid-1980s, Latinx students had pushed Yale to support the grape boycott called by the United Farm Workers, led at the time by Cesar Chávez. Student activists had gotten 25 percent of the student body to sign in support of the boycott during the 1987-1988 academic year. The university subsequently caved and stopped serving grapes. But the victory was short-lived: two years later, grapes were on the menu yet again.

Davis acknowledges that the reversal could have been due to something as simple as a mistake from a new staff member who hadn’t gotten the memo. But the prevailing sentiment among many students was that the administration was taking advantage of the fact that many of the original activists had graduated—they doubted the university had truly cared about their demands to begin with. It was a sentiment felt across a range of issues, and it was one they applied to the consolidation of La Casa: as far as some alumni were concerned, consolidating centers was nothing more than a cost-cutting measure in the eyes of the administration.

Opposition runs far less deep nowadays. La Casa currently has 20 affiliate student organizations and around 30 student employees. Its current Director, Eileen Galvez, told The Yale Historical Review that, “In the almost six years that I have been working with our constituents, it has become very clear that there is a need to serve our vastly diverse community beyond a pan-ethnic identity as well. Our community members are from various racial and ethnic identities, social classes, genders, sexualities, and so much more, and specificity matters. La Casa continues to evolve as our student communities shift. And yet, the sense of community, support, and understanding remains.”

In 2019, the center offered Yale College’s only Spanish-language orientation for families—”a recognition that La Casa should extend beyond the student”—extending a welcoming hand for the many parents and guardians who otherwise might feel disconnected from the new world their child is entering. Even as these are achievements to be celebrated, they also highlight gaps in the university’s standard operating procedures that continue to leave the needs and experiences of the Yale’s Latinx students unaddressed. The story of La Casa is still ongoing. At its heart are the students, administrators, and educators who continue to strive for the goal so many Latinxs have sought for generations: community.

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