Yale University was founded in 1701. Over 250 years later, in the early 1970s, the first Latinos stepped foot on the prestigious campus. For these Latinos, Yale was a Sisyphean challenge — a sea of unfamiliar affluence never before traversed by Latinos. They soon realized the only way to survive the resulting ostracism and isolation would be to ban together. As a result of their determination to succeed, today, there are approximately 5,000 Yale Latino Alumni.
The Early Years
Former Yale Associate Dean, Rosalinda Garcia, explained, “Most of the first Latinos who went to Yale had a very hard time. One, it was a racist climate, and two, these students were brought onto campus and they weren’t given any resources to succeed.”
Garcia describes the first “big” class of Latinos – it had a total of five (in a class of thousands), and it was common for them to be called derogatory names around campus. This, she reminded, was the atmosphere at all Ivy League schools during the time, not just Yale.
It was during this time that a group of Puerto Rican students decided to ban together and approach the administration requesting help in navigating the tumultuous campus and their unique challenges; challenges included major financial disparities that aided social impediments, as well as the downfall of not having prior family attend Yale like so many of their classmates, which gave them a handicap in navigating the complexities of the school.
“They fought and fought,” explained Garcia, “and finally Yale created the Puerto Rican Orientation Program (PROP), giving them a very specific orientation.”
This lead to other ethnic groups getting involved and fighting for their own specific orientations. And, over the years, Yale continued to make strides to incorporate Latinos and other minorities more seamlessly.
In her 13 years at Yale, Garcia ran La Casa Cultural (a.k.a. Latino Cultural Center), a safe haven and support center for Latinos on campus, and she was also a pivotal figure in one of the most recent movements for Yale Latinos: the creation of the Yale Latino Alumni Association (YLAA), officially established in 2007.
“One of the things I wanted to do,” said Garcia, “was circle back to those first Latinos that helped establish the Latino Center, and the other Latino groups that we have, so that they could see that all of their suffering was not in vain. That everything that they did still existed and that our community has thrived because of all the work they did.”
Garcia found that most Latino Yale alumni survivors were left with negative feelings towards Yale, and when they left that was it; they never turned back, they never contributed, and they never volunteered.
Garcia said that she felt a huge need to engage the Latino alumni; not only were they disconnected but they showed an interest in wanting that to change. In fact, many were trying to organize on their own, in smaller groups. Garcia also saw how connection with alumni could benefit current and future Latino students.
“I thought it would be helpful to connect our current students with the alumni because our current students still struggle,” said Garcia, explaining that, while not as hefty, the nature of struggles haven’t changed. They are still economic, cultural, and racism still permeates in unexpected ways. She said, “I thought it would be very helpful for [current students] to talk to someone who had been in their shoes and who had made it out.”
Today, YLAA has taken that initial idea and established “Como Yo” College Mentoring Program where they match an alum with a current student based on their interests and expressed needs.
Mayra Macias, who graduated from Yale in 2010 and now serves as co-chair on the YLAA board, said, “While YLAA is ultimately here to serve and engage our Latino alumni, I think for many of us alumni, it is important to give back and serve as a resource to current students — obviously that looks different for everyone, but just the simple exposure of alumni to students is significant for our community.”
Militza M. Pagán, who graduated alongside Macias in 2010 and also now serves as co-chair on the board of YLAA, said she got involved with YLAA because of this very reason. She wanted to stay connected to those that she shared a unique experience with, but also she said, “I wanted to see how I could help because I’m not going to be the last Latino to have difficulty while at Yale.”
Pagán grew up in Chicago in a highly Latino neighborhood. Her mother was a public school teacher for some 30 odd years. “So that was my world,” she said. “I didn’t know the world I would be faced with when I went to Yale.”
She explained that she felt her background caused her quite a bit of difficulty, in terms of connecting with people. She recalled an experience she had at Yale when trying to converse with fellow classmates, where she had to explain where her family was from (Puerto Rico), and how it felt odd to have to explain “who are you” to people who didn’t realize there were “many countries in Latin America and not just one big Mexico.”
The Latino Cultural Center quickly became her home away from home. She said it was a place she felt comfortable, and where she “didn’t have to explain myself.”
“The dean at the time, Rosalinda Garcia, was really like a second mom, I would go to her for anything when I was struggling with school,” said Pagán.
Macias shared her thoughts on the “home away from home” concept created by the Cultural Center and YLAA: “I think for many of us, who do not have parents who can help us navigate college, the Latino adults around us — be it the Dean of La Casa, professors, university staff, and alumni — fill that void.
“When I graduated college, I introduced my parents to two Latino professors who were very influential in shaping my experience at Yale. I introduced them as my Yale ‘parents’ not as an affront to my own parents, but rather as a term of endearment for people who looked out for me both as educators, but also as Latinos who wanted to see me succeed.”
Strengthening for Future Strides
Pagán said although YLAA hadn’t been around that long she wanted to be a part of what it could be, and she is doing her part to give back to her fellow Yale Latinos. She recalled how she received a phone call from a Yale alum stuck at the airport in the middle of the night, and without hesitation she picked them up and let them stay at her house because she said, “That’s just what you do.”
She said the association brings an inherent sense of trust and safety, because that is its very purpose…to take care of and support Yale Latinos.
Garcia recalled a story of her own, describing how a freshman Latino was feeling pressured by suite mates to provide the T.V., as one was providing a couch and so on; however, the student had no money, and sat in front of Garcia crying. After relaying this story to an alum, that alum expressed heartfelt sympathy to the insensitivity so often felt by those less fortunate at Yale and the next week delivered a T.V. to Garcia’s office for the student. Because as a fellow Yale Latino alum…that’s just what you do.