What does it mean to be Latinx at Amherst College? This question has followed generations of Latinx students who’ve come to Amherst since the college’s earliest attempts at diversifying its student body. However, class after class of students have found that there’s no single answer to this perpetual question — rather, the answer has changed over the past 50 years, with students constantly redefining and pushing the boundaries of Latinx identity through activism, community building, cultural expression, and student-led organizations like La Causa, Amherst’s Latinx affinity group.
Since the early 1970s, Latinx students at Amherst have worked to make the college a place where their identities, academics, and self-exploration could thrive. For this year’s Latinx Heritage Month, The Student explored this 50-year history of Latinx activism and involvement on campus, speaking to students, faculty, and alumni about what being Latinx at Amherst means to them, and the gains that several generations of students have made.
1972: The Beginnings of La Causa
In the fall of 1972, Tomás Gonzáles ’76 had just settled into his first-year dorm when he heard a knock on his door. Upon opening it, he was greeted by Edmundo Orozco ’74, who introduced himself and offered to introduce him to another Latinx first-year student — Les Purificación ’76, who was living in Charles Pratt Hall.
Gonzáles, Purificación, and Orozco were part of the earliest group of working-class Latinx students on Amherst’s campus, and despite their differences in ethnic background — Purificación was Puerto Rican, while Gonzáles and Orozco were both Mexican — all three men were able to find common ground in their experiences of being Latinx at a primarily white institution. The three men became close friends. Later that semester, they founded La Causa, Amherst’s first working-class Latinx student organization, with the goal of “creat[ing] a viable Latino social, cultural and political body” on campus and increasing Latinx student enrollment.
By the end of the year, La Causa had received funding from the Student Allocations Committee, known today as the Budgetary Committee, and was recognized as an official student organization. Its original mission became the founding pillar of Latinx activism and community on campus.
“We just became a support group for one another, and for others,” Orozco said at a Sept. 15 event titled Latinx History at Amherst, which featured three panels with alumni, professors, and current students. “We’re just sharing information and experiences.”
Prior to the enrollment of Purificación, Gonzáles, and a handful of other working-class Latinx students, Orozco had worked closely with the admissions office to recruit domestic Hispanic and Latinx students from working-class backgrounds. These students were a stark contrast from the Latinx students who had attended Amherst previously, many of whom were international students from wealthier families in Latin America.
“We certainly weren’t the first Hispanics in Amherst,” said Orozco. “There've been a lot of them coming through here from privileged backgrounds, well-known backgrounds … there [were] always Hispanics, but … they had a career path, they had a background. We were trying to establish ourselves.”
Following La Causa’s official establishment, the next item on the group’s early agenda was to continue increasing the number of Latinx and Hispanic students on the Amherst campus. As students, Purificación and Gonzáles became involved with the Office of Admissions, and worked to recruit Hispanic students from more diverse backgrounds.
Through La Causa, Orozco, Gonzáles, and Purificación went to high school campuses and recruitment fairs around the Northeast, meeting with Hispanic students and other students of color and encouraging them to apply. They also reviewed scored applications, evaluating Hispanic applicants in particular and advocating for them in the admissions office. According to Purificación, all of these efforts were encouraged by Dean of Admissions Ed Wall, who made diversifying Amherst’s student body one of his key focuses.
These concerted efforts in the admissions process led to a small increase in the number of Latinx students on campus in the late 1970s, including Ricardo Morales ’78 and Edwin Camacho ’79. Morales and Camacho joined La Causa as first-year students after meeting Gonzáles and Purificación, and also participated in advocating for more Latinx recruitment through the admissions office.
“The only way to win prioritizing for La Causa was admissions,” said Morales at the 50-Year Anniversary of La Causa: The Founding panel. “So taking a page from Edmundo and taking a page from Les, when I got here, I realized that really quickly and I made that one of my top priorities in terms of admissions … Being able to be diverse means diversity across the board.”
Alongside advocating for diversity in admissions, La Causa also worked to bring visibility to Latinx culture on the Amherst campus. Among the organization’s achievements was “Pa’lante,” the Five Colleges’ first annual Latinx talent show, in 1975. “Pa’lante” united Latinx students from all of the Five Colleges — they sang, danced, and performed in a vibrant display of cultural unity — one of the first of its kind on Amherst’s campus.
However, according to alumni, efforts to build a Latinx community on campus were met with resistance. “[We were] challenged by other students saying, ‘Why do you need a group? That’s bad, because you’re separating yourself from us,’” said Purificación at the panel.
The students also struggled with the institutional ignorance ingrained in Amherst’s very campus, physical reminders that made it difficult for students of color to ever feel completely comfortable. Purificación recalled an instance where, as part of his work-study, he bused dishes for students eating in Valentine Dining Hall — only to look down and realize that all the dishes had the racist design of British soldiers on horseback hunting down Indigenous people.
“Every day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, [we were] looking at genocide, reinforcing it every time,” Purificación recalled. “How can this be Amherst College, [which is] sold to be a bastion of progressive liberal thought? There are Black students here, there are some Hispanic and Asian students here … How can no one see it?”
Despite these conflicts, La Causa endured, and continued to pursue its mission. As the Latinx student population on campus grew, so did student activism, and the push to create spaces on campus where Latinx students could feel truly included, without having to compromise aspects of themselves and their culture.
“There were very few [Latinx] people,” Gonzáles said at the panel. “So we had to do what we could with what we got, and that’s why admissions was so important. To embrace communities where they were at, and attract them, and reinforce the reasons why they should be here and stay here, because it wasn’t only about enrolling and matriculating, it was about graduating and surviving and succeeding.”
“La Causa created that vehicle of social change, of voice,” Morales added. “Letting people know that we’re here … to be counted upon, and to provide change in a way that’s meaningful not only to ourselves and to our families, for our own prosperity, but also for those who come behind us, or are on the side, or are ahead of us.”
1977-1982: The Next Generation
Following the matriculation of Orozco, Purificación, and Gonzáles, students like Morales and Camacho stepped up to lead La Causa, fostering a new wave of student activism in the late ’70s.
The later 1970s saw an increase in the Latinx presence on campus, partially due to La Causa’s work in admissions. This swell of students prompted the crucial fight for a physical space for the Latinx community to gather on campus. To cope with the hostility they faced from the wider college, Latinx students wanted a designated room where they could convene for meetings, build community, and be themselves. Calls for a cultural space coincided with the Student Allocation Commitee’s refusal to fund La Causa in 1977, and tensions eventually boiled over during December of 1978, when Camacho and a small group of students decided to hold a sit-in at the snack bar in Fayerweather Hall, disrupting the snack bar’s usual activity and occupying the space until their concerns were addressed.
“The larger community … viewed us as being Latinos, [as being] something else,” Camacho said at one of the panels at the event, explaining the necessity of the sit-in. “We felt that it was important for us to own that, and to present our identity as a group and not have it be imposed upon us.”
The sit-in lasted three days and grew to include approximately 100 students, and was immediately met with backlash, most notably from The Amherst Student. In the issue published on Dec. 7, 1978, The Student’s editorial board published a piece titled “‘The Cause’ Celebre.” In the piece, the editorial board scolded La Causa for their protest, stating that they were “dismayed at the lack of respect which La Causa displayed in effecting the takeover of the snack bar,” and claiming that the organization needed to meet the administration halfway. In the same issue, The Student gave La Causa a superlative in its Sixth Annual Dubious Achievement Awards titled “The Hey, I Hear You’ve Got A Special On Tacos Today” award.
These negative reactions to the protest “highlighted the need for the cultural center,” said Camacho. “Yes, [it was] racism, but it’s really born of ignorance … a lot of racism, most of it is born out of ignorance. And I think that just to refer to tacos, to lump all Latinos together with that symbol, was another example of that ignorance.”
However, the backlash La Causa received was small in comparison to the support from other campus organizations. The college’s president at the time, John William Ward, was also open to dialogue between his administration and the organization, and the sit-in eventually proved to be a success: The administration offered Fayerweather 108 as an office and cultural center.
La Causa accepted the offer on three conditions: priority for a larger room, the college’s refurbishment of Fayerweather 108, and the inclusion of minority students in the interviewing and evaluation process of minority faculty. The space was named after José Martí, a Cuban revolutionary. Today, it still exists on campus as the José Martí Cultural Center in the basement of the Keefe Campus Center.
The late 1970s also brought co-education to the college. Janine Craane ’82, one of the first Latinx women to attend Amherst, had to navigate the dual experience of being Latinx in a white space while also being a woman in a predominantly male space.
“The campus really hated having women and the professors, especially [hated it],” said Craane at the 50-Years of Latinx Student Activism panel. “The economics department was positively hostile, [and so were] a lot of the alumni, and that lasted well into when I graduated.”
Craane ran for chair of La Causa and faced some of this hostility and machismo during elections, but was successful in her campaign and led La Causa through a new era of co-education. She brought multiple Latinx figures to Amherst to speak to students, and engaged with the wider Five College community. She also started initiatives like Big Sisters, Little Sisters, through which Craane connected with other women at Amherst, offering mentorship and guidance for female students that was hard to come by in the early days of co-education.
“[That program] was my way of addressing the machismo,” Craane added. Programs such as Big Sisters and Little Sisters had a strong impact on the college community– so much so that later on, when Craane was working on Wall Street, the Amherst students interning in her office “loved the school. They had a completely different experience. It was like, ‘Wow, I can’t even recognize the school you’re describing; it’s not the school I attended.’ I tried to make it a kinder, better place.”
1990s: La Lucha Continues
Internal changes in La Causa, as well as the group’s activism across campus, continued throughout the 1990s, with the 1992 takeover of Converse Hall serving as a particularly memorable moment. During these years, the college further increased its recruitment of Latinx students of working-class backgrounds, as the admissions process began moving away from feeder schools in the Northeast and toward public schools across the country.
One of these students was Rick Lopez ’93, the Anson D. Morse 1871 professor of history, professor of environmental studies, and dean of students, who arrived at the college in fall of 1989.
“I was part of the first group when Amherst College was starting to recruit outside of feeder schools and brought in a lot of working-class Latinos, who might have been the only ones from their public high school who came here,” Lopez said in an interview with The Student. “It was a very different experience. The college didn’t quite know what to do with all of these students, but there was a critical mass of us.”
Lopez and Gilberto Simpson ’94 were co-chairs of La Causa together, and Simpson also ran for chair of the Black Students Union.
“The idea was we were going to try to bring greater alliances between these two organizations, both to recognize Afro Latinos who felt really unwelcome at La Causa before that … but also [for] greater collaboration across organizations,” Lopez added. “Things got much more political.”
A major part of this political collaboration came in the spring of 1992, after the beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black man, by four Los Angeles Police Department officers, and the subsequent trial and verdict which acquitted the officers. At the time of the verdict, Simpson stated, there had also been stalling from the college administration on the recruitment and retention of Black faculty.
The combination of these two issues meant that students felt the need to hold “a kind of protest or consciousness-raising event,” Simpson said at the 50-Years of Latinx Student Activism panel. “There was somebody who had the suggestion, ‘Hey, let’s take over the administration, let’s take over Converse [Hall].’”
This suggestion, at first taken as a joke, quickly became reality, and in May, members of La Causa joined the Black Students Union in their takeover of Converse Hall. The group of protesters issued a list of eight demands to President Peter Pouncey’s administration. Chief among these was a call for the hiring of a trained affirmative-action officer by Feb. of 1993, as well as the hiring of Black or Latinx faculty members in two of three departments — psychology, political science, or theater and dance — by May 1995. However, the college’s response to the Converse takeover made many students feel demoralized, Lopez said. It felt like the administration wasn’t taking their demands seriously.
“We had a big meeting [with President Pouncey] in the Red Room,” Lopez said. “Basically what he did was proceed to take apart all of our arguments and make it seem like there was absolutely nothing wrong, which wasn’t convincing, but it was demoralizing. And so we persisted in the occupation for a little longer and then we eventually came out.”
It wasn’t until much later, when Lopez became a professor at Amherst himself, that he realized that there were concessions made to student protesters — concessions that the college had not wanted to present to students right away. One of these concessions was the hiring of Brenda Bright, the first professor to teach Latino studies at the college.
Additionally, later in the ’90s came the creation of La Casa, the Latinx theme house. The charter for La Casa was written by Marisol Arriaga ’95, alongside Jorge Blandon ’96 and a few other students. “At the time, people really wanted a space to live together, to share and … to be able to deal with not only the academics of Amherst, but all of the micro- and macro-aggressions that were happening in the institution,” said Arriaga at the event.
The charter of La Casa also required inhabitants to fulfill a community service requirement, in an attempt to engage with the wider Latinx community in the areas outside of Amherst.
But despite these attempts to forge pan-Latinx solidarity on campus, there were also points where different cohorts of Latinx students diverged in order to give specificity to their own issues. The creation of Hispaña, for example, was led by a group of Puerto Rican students in the 80s who wanted to focus more on cultural and social activities, rather than align themselves with the political activism and activity of La Causa. “[They didn’t] want to be associated with that kind of thing,” said Craane. “It broke my heart to see the splitting.”
The Chicano Caucus was started in 1993 to create a space explicitly for Chicano students — students of Mexican American descent — to talk about their own political issues and find their own community, separate from the wider Latinx umbrella. There were worries that this would create tension, Arriaga recalled.
“There was this idea that [the Caucus] was going to splinter off and drain some of the resources from La Causa, but what actually happened was quite the opposite,” she said. “They were very great at going to the Student Affairs Committee … getting the funding. And what it did was give us twice the money.”
Neither Hispaña nor the Chicano Caucus exist on campus today, but both were born out of the wide range of Latinx students on campus fighting to assert their identities in ways they saw fit. This was especially important as the Latinx population on campus increased and the community became less monolithic — something that reflected the increasing diversity in the Latinx population of the wider United States.
“We had numbers, we had interest,” said Arriaga. “[But] obviously you’re always going to have different factions of people who don’t want to be as involved — your race is not a proxy for your politics, per se. And I think looking back, we were sort of trying to think through a lot of these issues, trying to complicate the conversation a little more, trying to think about things in a more intersectional way.”
“There’s not one kind of [Latinx] activism that has existed [on campus], it’s gone through phases,” added Lopez. “People come from different parts of the world, different sorts of traditions — Puerto Rican, Chicano, Mexican, Peruvian, Dominicano — and different class backgrounds … when you think about activism, part of it is the development of a consciousness about where [students] come from, what it means to them, what it means to be part of this place, Amherst College, and the things that they want to see happen.”
2010s: The Creation of Latinx Studies
While earlier generations of students had called for the implementation of Latinx studies in the Amherst curriculum, it wasn’t until the 2000s and 2010s that such advocacy really took off. Conversations around establishing Latinx studies had been occurring since the 1970s, but according to Carlos Gonzalez ’14, these conversations “didn’t go anywhere, which caused a lot of frustration.”
Gonzalez, along with other Latinx students and faculty, held a dinner with then-President Biddy Martin to discuss their desire for a Latinx studies department. Latinx studies would not only demonstrate that the college valued the experiences of Latinx students, they argued, but it would also remove the burden of Latinx students having to educate the rest of the population — a burden which had fallen on them since the arrival of the first working-class Latinx students to Amherst in the ’70s. “We’re happy to be at the table,” Gonzalez noted at the panel titled the 5-Year Anniversary of Latinx and Latin American studies. “But we cannot be expected to be the ones planning all of this when we also have to deal with Amherst College-level academics.”
Prior to the creation of Amherst’s Latinx and Latin American Studies (LLAS) Department, students had to look to other colleges in the Five College system to study any sort of Latinx or Latin American curriculum. One of those students was Elaine Vilorio ’17, who, alongside Hugo Sanchez ’17, was involved in the early advocacy to create a Latinx studies program.
Sanchez recalled a moment in one of his Spanish classes when he was a sophomore, where a student made an ignorant comment about undocumented students in a class with many Latinx individuals. “Everybody’s faces changed … They were very upset,” he said at the event. “I thought to myself, how was his opinion made? Why is it that someone would think like that?”
However, Sanchez attributed this microaggression to ignorance.“It wasn’t my job to teach anyone [when] I was at a school whose mission was to teach,” he said. “I felt like I wanted an institution like Amherst College to be responsible for that.”
Due to slow movement on the issue, Vilorio ended up creating her own Latin American studies major through Amherst’s interdisciplinary studies major. “I didn’t want the [Five College Latin American Studies] certificate, because I wanted to do a thesis, so I made [the major] through the interdisciplinary studies option,” she said in an interview with The Student. However, in order to create this major, Vilorio had to travel off campus and attend classes at UMass and Mount Holyoke College — something that wasn’t “really a choice as much as it was a requirement,” as Amherst didn’t have the requisite course offerings.
Additionally, the sense of community usually found within a department or major was lacking, mostly because the limited Latinx studies programming that did exist was so widely scattered across the Five Colleges. “I definitely felt like I was more alone when I was making an interdisciplinary major, and it was hard for me to have peers to talk to about it,” Vilorio said. “It would have just been nice to have that community … and just having recognition on campus would have [also] been nice.”
The Amherst Uprising, a 2015 student-led demonstration for racial justice on campus, played a pivotal role in the advocacy for Latinx studies. Following the Uprising, R. John Cooper ’64 Presidential Teaching Professor of Spanish Paul Schroeder Rodriguez was hired during a push for more diversity in the Spanish department. However, Schroeder Rodriguez also came to the college specifically because of his past experience in Latinx and Latin American studies. Alongside Lopez and Professor of American Studies and Black Studies Solsiree del Moral, Schroeder Rodriguez helped draft the proposal for the LLAS program.
“In the 2010s, it’s unacceptable for a college [the] caliber [of] Amherst College to ask students to justify the academic value of Latinx studies,” said del Moral at panel. “But the students were put into that position. I really resented that they had to do that type of work. What we were doing was convincing the administrators and the faculty that they should catch up to 60 years of academic research, and found the program here.”
Alongside student activists, del Moral, Schroeder Rodriguez, and Lopez were able to come up with the core requirements and curriculum for the LLAS program, ensuring that it allowed students to study not just U.S. Latinxs, but also Latin America and the Caribbean. Exposure to all three content areas was especially important, as it created “a space for students to build the major to suit their needs,” del Moral said.
Because Schroeder Rodriguez was new to campus, he realized that he would be in a “good position” to move the proposal through the administrative process. “I went around and gathered feedback, sometimes by myself, sometimes with other faculty, to hear from students, departments that might have overlap,” he said in an interview with The Student, “[to] get a sense of who was on board and how.”
The proposal for LLAS was then put up to a faculty vote, where it received unanimous approval. “Everyone voted in favor of it and actually stood up and gave a round of applause for the creation of the major, so that was pretty exciting,” Lopez said. “But I can’t say that was the result of just those two years of working on it. It was the fact that this was the result of this longer history, student activism, collaboration with faculty, and openness by the administration at the college.”
The LLAS program was officially launched in 2017, and has produced a steady number of majors ever since. Soledad Slowing-Romero ’20 was the second person to ever declare LLAS as a major in the fall of her sophomore year, and the first to write a thesis for the department. “I didn’t really do anything to bring the major about, I just kind of benefited from it,” she said in an interview with The Student. “But the LLAS major was definitely my favorite place to be in. I met so much of the faculty that I adore … it just really felt like a community.”
According to Slowing-Romero, the LLAS department was a “space for more progressive scholarship” than other departments and majors, partly because of its interdisciplinary aspects. The department also enables students to critically study their own histories, as well as nurture “radical scholarship,” she said.
These sentiments were echoed by Victoria Foley ’23, who has worked as a research assistant for the LLAS department since the beginning of her sophomore year. Part of Foley’s research has been to interview past Latinx alumni of the college and speak to them about their experience as Latinx students on campus.
Through this research, Foley said she has gained “a more profound appreciation” for the struggles that past Latinx students have gone through. “There’s so much activism that’s not recorded or even seen here at Amherst,” Foley said in an interview with The Student. “It’s really awesome and should be highlighted that people overcame that. They were like, no, you can try to vandalize our space, but we’re going to prevail here. And it gives you appreciation, like someone fought for what I have today.”
Research like Foley’s also plays an important role in legitimizing the experiences of Latinx students and alumni at Amherst, something that was almost unheard of 50 years ago. According to Lopez, who has done his own historical research about Amherst’s history of Latinx advocacy, “for alumni to share their stories is actually pretty cathartic … because for some of them, their experiences at Amherst — while they valued it — was traumatizing.”
“What they experienced here, the kind of classism and racism that they experienced from peers, left scars,” he added, “so it meant a lot to them to have a current student and reach out [and interview them] … I think that has been very powerful for a number of alumni.”
Additionally, through the LLAS department, Foley was able to curate an exhibit on the history of La Causa for Latinx Heritage Month, which is currently on display in Frost Library until Oct. 15. She also helped to organize the Latinx History at Amherst event, alongside Eva Diaz, the LLAS department’s academic coordinator. “My hope is that people can look at the exhibition and be like, ‘Wow, I had no idea that my own classmates [who] are like me devoted their time to this,’” Foley said.
2020s: Siempre Pa’lante, the Future and Beyond
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of La Causa, and the fifth anniversary of the creation of the LLAS program. The organization and the program continue to flourish on campus today, as students consistently use both to explore their Latinx identities and define what being Latinx at Amherst means to them — the continuation of an effort that has lasted 50 years.
Lexy García ’23, who has been involved with La Causa since her sophomore year, stated that prior to Covid, the club played a large part in her experiences with Latinidad on campus. García was the Conocer y Resolver chair before the pandemic, a position designed to serve as community liaison between the La Causa e-board, the general club membership, and the wider Latinx population on campus. As Conocer y Resolver chair, García made an effort to create programming that would connect club members to Latinx alumni through events such as Latinx Alumni Homecoming. According to García, this event was particularly important for creating a sense of community, connecting the younger students to past alumni, and continuing the traditions of La Causa throughout the generations.
“The more I read about the struggles and activism that the first generations of Latinos on campus had to deal with and fight with, the more I felt connected to this vision,” García said in an interview with The Student.
However, despite attempts by previous La Causa e-boards to continue strengthening the Latinx presence on campus, Covid and the arrival of online learning made that difficult. In recent years, the political and activism aspects of La Causa largely went quiet, and even the organization’s attempts at creating a social space for Latinx students have struggled to make an impact.
As the 2022-23 school year started, dissatisfaction and calls for restructuring grew. After a period of extensive discussion with the community, a new constitution was developed by Belem Oseguera Duran ’24E, Elias Villanueva Gomez ’25, Mina Enayati-Uzeta ’25, and Valerie Rosario ’26. The new constitution drew from many of the principles and objectives of past constitutions that had been removed in the last decade, most notably in its redefinition of many of the club’s leadership roles — a change that tries to “reference the labor put in by the Latine community who’s come before us, and to honor all the good work they did,” according to Villanueva Gomez in an interview with The Student, “to strengthen the connection between the past and the present, in order to understand the future we want as a community.”
Recent weeks have also seen the election of a new e-board, meant to lead La Causa into the next semester and revitalize its presence on campus. Part of that revitalization is to once again make La Causa a space where Latinx students have the ability to assert themselves culturally, politically, and academically — to make La Causa into a vehicle for wider social change and explorations of Latinidad at Amherst.
“In La Causa you find solidarity,” said Rosario. “It’s an affinity space where you can let go of your frustrations but also celebrate who you are with people who also share the same feeling.”
“That’s something you won’t find in many other places at Amherst,” she said.
“[La Causa] is the meeting ground,” Villanueva Gomez added. “It’s the place where I tell others, this is happening to me, is it happening to you? We need to change that, what can we do? How do we come together? Now that we have more structure and clearer goals, hopefully we can … move forward with a concrete agenda.”
The wide spectrum of Latinx activism and involvement on campus means that countless students have fought to find their places at Amherst. And although these students are only here for four years, each class builds off the work done by those before them, leading to the environment we know today, where organizations like La Causa are allowed to stumble and then rebuild, where programs like Latinx and Latin American studies can continue pushing the bounds of scholarship and exploration. The only way through is forward — pa’lante.
“Though I’ve never felt totally comfortable in a place like Amherst, my Latinidad has manifested into me trying to be as true to myself and the way I am,” García said. “The way I was raised, my customs, my practices, my morals, my ethics, while still being in a space like this, and hopefully thriving. But I couldn’t have done that without finding community first.”
This sentiment was echoed repeatedly by alumni, who credited Amherst for giving them the avenues to discover themselves and their voices. “I thank Amherst for everything,” said Orozco. “And I want to stress to you that we’re here for a purpose. And the purpose is to become the best you can be, and to become a symbol and someone that can give guidance. We don’t do things on our own. We do it in the company of others.”