Controversy Flares Over University of New Mexico’s Centro de la Raza
One of the promises Veronica Cruz made when taking over the helm at
Hispanic Student Services at the University of New Mexico (UNM) a few
years ago was to change the name of the center. As of this academic
year, it is now “Centro de la Raza.” But along with the name change has
Literally translated, “Centro de la Raza” means “the center for the
race.” However, a more appropriate and accurate translation is the
“People’s Center” or the “Center of the People,” said Cruz, adding that
the controversy arose because many of the center’s detractors are not
familiar with the concept of “La Raza” or with the actual translation.
“The biggest source of conflict comes from people who are ignorant
of what `La Raza’ means and how it’s defined. The biggest critics are
those who don’t take the time to find out,” she said.
In the 1920s, Mexican educator Jose Vasconcellos developed the
concept of “La Raza Cosmica” — A Cosmic People. In this concept,
Vasconcellos points out that the Mexican people have indigenous roots,
which are presumed to be Asian, and that when the Spaniards came to the
Americas, Mexicans mixed both with Europeans and Africans, thus
producing a cosmic race — a mixture of all the peoples of the world.
Over the years, Cruz explained, “La Raza” has simply come to mean
In recognition of this mixture, October 12 in Mexico — and
throughout Latin America — is celebrated not as Columbus Day, but as
“Dia de La Raza” or Day of the People, said Eliseo Torres, vice
president of student affairs.
Racist and Exclusionary?
The controversy began at the beginning of the academic year. The
New Mexico Association of Scholars, which has since found other allies,
considers the name racist or exclusionary. Demanding that the center
change its name, the detractors have taken steps to force the
university to take action.
Richard Bertholz, a member of the association, has written in the
Daily Lobo (the campus newspaper) that the controversy isn’t simply
about the name. He stated that at a public university, there is no
place for El Centro de la Raza, or the American Indian and the African
American Student Services centers at the university. Those centers, he
maintains, discriminate against white students.
Torres, who endorsed the name change, said that the controversy is
based on a misunderstanding of the language and culture of Mexicans,
Mexican Americans and other Hispanics/Latinos groups.
“It’s a term that brings people together. The Centro is there for
the students and it is the students who recommended the name change.
The complaints have come mainly from non-students. We’re here to be
sensitive as to what students want. . . it’s their university,”
A Feeling of Comfort
The change came about because students did not feel comfortable
with the previous name, according to Cruz. After a nomination process
and election, students chose “Centro Estudiantil de la Raza Unida.”
However, because of its length, it was eventually shortened to its
current name, “Centro de la Raza.”
While some Mexican American and Hispanic students oppose the new
name, most of the students who utilize the center feel comfortable with
it, according to Cruz. The name, she said, is similar to other UNM
student organizations, i.e.; La Raza Estudiantil and La Raza en Accion.
The main function of the centers is retention and recruitment, said
Cruz, noting that as in the rest of the country, all three groups are
under-represented. Aside from providing academic support — through
tutoring, counseling and computer services — the centers recruit
students in the community and also host functions for both minority and
non-minority students, said Torres.
“The centers serve a critical need. It gives students a sense of
belonging,” Torres continued, adding that the centers serve as a home
for students who come from small communities or who come from
communities in which they are in the majority but, on campus, find
themselves in the minority. “If it weren’t for the centers, some
students would be lost.”
The Other Centers
Lucille Stillwell, director of the American Indian Student Services
center, said that the notion that the centers are exclusionary and that
they shouldn’t exist is based on ignorance.
“We serve all students,” said Stillwell, adding, “We serve
constituencies in the state and the centers are open to all.” For
example, she noted that while her center primarily serves American
Indian students, many Anglos, Hispanics, African Americans and
international students work with the center. “Many are interested in
working on American Indian issues.”
Regarding the name change, Still well said every constituency has
the right to choose their own name, pointing out that her center has
not been embroiled in a controversy over its name. Most people use the
tribe they belong to as part of their name (such as Navajo), but use
American Indian when dealing with state or federal entities, she says,
noting that Native American is a term that is more encompassing. “Names
are not a concern for us.”
Brenda Chandler, the interim director of the African American
Student Services center also said that her center has not come under
attack because of its name, but noted: “There will always be people who
attack the centers — because of our names or simply because they feel
we shouldn’t exist.”
“The attacks against the Centro have come out of total ignorance,”
said Chandler. “People should take the time to learn the language.”
As for the need for the centers: “This is a white university. Many
students who utilize the African American center are students who come
from large Black communities, who find themselves as a minority on
campus. It’s a total culture shock,” she said, adding that the centers
make many students feel like they belong.
The attacks against the Centro continue in the Daily Lobo and in
the legal department of the university, said Cruz, who pointed out that
Bertholz recently sought advice from the university’s legal department
questioning the center’s legality. However, she said that the center is
not in any danger: “We have support from the university.”
According to Cruz, the notion that the centers have no place at the
university goes to the idea “that culture should not exist; that we
should all be one; and that we should not claim to be Hispanics, Native
Americans or African Americans.” The idea that we should not claim
cultures is ridiculous, she said.
“I’m very offended by this controversy,” complained Cruz. “Without
our identities and heritage, then it takes away our self worth. I don’t
go around telling others how they should call themselves and what
heritage they should claim…. It bugs me to no end that they have
nothing better to do than attack. I’ve got better things to do.”
Then she added: “We will always fight to get more Raza on campus,
not just for the betterment of our people, but for the betterment of
society as a whole.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Colorado State’s Centro Also Changed Name
In 1985, El Centro Chicano at Colorado State University was changed
to “El Centro Hispanic Student Services.” The reason for the change was
a survey which showed that many students did not utilize the center
because of its name.
But the change also inspired controversy. Many students felt that
the center belonged to Chicano students and not all students of Spanish
surnames. Four years ago, in response to the controversy, the name was
again changed to “El Centro Student Services.
“Some students still resent that the center’s name doesn’t include
the name Chicano,” said director Guadalupe Salazar. Other centers
across the country whose charge is to serve all Spanish surnamed
students have gone through similar controversies and name changes, she
acknowledged. Many are now called “Chicano/Latino” centers.
While the charge of these centers its to recruit and retain
Chicano/Latino/Hispanic students, many become embroiled in name
controversies that waste time, according to Salazar, who added: “It’s
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com