The Next Best Thing to Family

As more Hispanic women are enrolling in college, Hispanic sororities are filling a personal void that other campus groups don’t.

COLLEGE PARK, MD.

Brenda Delgado, gathered on campus with a group of ‘sisters,’ quickly ticks off a list of why a Latina sorority was more appealing than other Greek-letter groups when she enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park. She draws nods of agreement from those gathered around.

“I feel that I can relate to these women,” says Delgado, a senior majoring in family science. “My parents being immigrants. Their parents being immigrants. My parents speak Spanish. Their parents speak Spanish. I feel that I can relate to them.” When asked how many in the group were first-time college students, all nine ‘sisters’ proudly raised their hands.

“I was a minority in high school, and I’m a minority here,” Delgado continues. “I felt that I needed my own home,” she says.

She found it as a sister in the 17-member Upsilon chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Inc., one of two Hispanic sororities on the UMCP campus. The other is Sigma Lambda Upsilon, Senoritas Latinas Unidas Sorority, Inc.

A generation ago, Latina sororities were in their infancy on American college campuses. Membership has ebbed and flowed since the founding of the first one, Lambda Theta Alpha, at Kean University in Union, N. J., in December 1975.

Though still small in member numbers today, compared to more long-established mainstream fraternities and sororities, Latina sororities have emerged as an important ingredient for success for many Hispanic women in college. They find Latina sororities fill a personal void other campus groups don’t. “

They are looking for cultural identity and community service,” says Yvonne Hernández, a member of Kappa Delta Chi and chair of the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations (NALFO), the umbrella council for 23 nationally recognized Hispanic Greek-letter groups. “Once you get them active, they are passionate about getting involved in the community.”

Today, there seems to be a slight increase in interest, Hernández says. She attributes it to the rise in the number of Latinas going to college and a seemingly greater desire among today’s students for more cultural identity. “For some reason, it seems especially poignant in the millennial generation,” she says.

While founded by Latinas, many Latina sororities are open to women of all backgrounds. In Lambda Theta Alpha at UMCP, students have roots in Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, Nepal and Peru.

Collectively, NALFO member organizations boast between 6,000 and 8,000 male and female members across the country. Latina sororities run the gamut in size and structure, with their styles of operating varying by group and sometimes region. Some emphasize academics; others stress social life.

Chapters with three to five members are common, particularly in the Midwest. In the West, where the Hispanic population is larger, some chapters will have 40 to 50 members. Membership dues are usually small and flexible, as most members come from low-income families that struggle just to help a student go to college.

Some, like the Radiant Ladies of Omega Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., ‘step,’ a trademark style of historically Black Greek-letter groups. Most Latina sororities have some form of the traditional “rush” or “pledge” season, although some call it an “intake process.” The range of initiation activities and requirements varies widely, depending on the group’s focus.

Maintaining a Balance

Regardless of their size, membership requirements, secret codes and regional peculiarities, there are some common threads running through Latina sororities. Their focuses are on academic achievement, community service and respectful redefinition of the role of the Hispanic woman while keeping a strong emphasis on the Hispanic family.

“What’s important is engaging not only the student but the family,” says Hernández, citing the tough balancing act Latinas face in trying to grow beyond their traditional roles in the family while not alienating or disrespecting their elders and heritage.

“They (Latina sororities) try to do a lot of activities where mom can come, grandma can come, aunts can come, the whole family,” says Hernández. “They break down some of the traditional barriers so the family starts to see what a positive experience college is for the student.”

When Cintya Renderos enrolled at UMCP, she found herself awash in a sea of thousands of strangers. All were anxious to make that tough transition into adulthood but hardly equipped with the personal tools to do so.

“I never thought about college while I was younger, I never really thought I could go to college,” says Renderos, the first person in her family to pursue a college degree and one of the few Hispanics among her high school peers to attend college. “The fact that I’m here now just really blows my mind sometimes.”

Renderos, whose family immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was in elementary school, is quite a changed person. The once soft-spoken average student is now a campus leader and academic achiever (she earned a 4.0 grade point average last semester). She sounds confident about excelling in her pursuits after her expected graduation next spring with a degree in public and community health. She credits her evolution into a confident adult to her involvement in a Latina sorority.

“For me, the sorority helped me achieve in every way possible,” says Renderos, president of UMCP’s chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha. “It’s kind of like a family away from home. They supported me and helped me find myself and my potential.”

Sorority participation pays personal dividends for most who join, says Gina García, retention coordinator in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of a 2005 study on Hispanic student participation in Hispanic sororities.

“The Latina sorority becomes a support group,” says García, whose survey of more than 300 students across the country found membership helped the students with their social adjustment to college life and boosted their commitment to their schools, both important factors in deciding whether to stay in school.

“There are women who get family resistance, and the sorority provides them contacts and connections who know what they are going through,” says García. “If you are going to a school out in the Midwest that’s majority White, you are looking for a cultural connection,” García explains.

García’s findings and sentiments are echoed by Mary Peterson, executive director of Iowa-based Sigma Lambda Gamma National Sorority, Inc. Peterson, who retired three years ago from the student life staff of the University of Iowa, helped five Hispanic students at the school start the sorority in 1990.

“For a majority of our women, being away from home, this just gave them a support system to try things they haven’t tried before, to feel better about being away from home and hopefully retain women so they do graduate. That’s what’s most important,” says Peterson, noting that Sigma Lambda has 87 active chapters and 12 active “colonies,” the term used to refer to new interest groups.

Indeed, even at the more urban Maryland campus, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., the significance of a Latina sorority to its members can’t be overstated. In its most recent enrollment report in fall 2007, the university reported nearly 6 percent of its 25,857 full-time undergraduate students were Hispanic. Just over half of the 1,517 Hispanic student population, 819 students, is female.

Renderos says many parents of Latina sorority members don’t understand what their daughters are going through, as their parents have never been to college.

“It’s a real balancing act, trying to be the best in both worlds, in your home and school,” says Renderos. “The Latina sororities have helped me realize it’s OK to be who I am and to have the love for academics and my family.”

Email the editor: editor@diverseeducation.com

Click here to post and read comments



© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com