La Casa strives to connect students inside and outside the Latino community

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Dr. Sylvia Martinez, associate professor in the School of Education, presents her research findings that examine the role that Latino ethnic identity plays in participation at La Casa in a Sept. 19 talk. La Casa is the Latino Cultural Center established to achieve a greater historical, political and cultural awareness regarding Latinxs through educational and social programs. Steven Lin Buy Photos

With more than 750 student organizations on campus, it can sometimes seem like a battle between who will win students’ attention. La Casa Latino Cultural Center strives to promote other organizations, in addition to its own, said Sylvia Martinez, associate professor in the School of Education.

Martinez, who previously conducted a study on Latino students at IU, concluded that many students have never visited before. Instead of taking unnecessary measures to persuade students to visit, La Casa wants to look at its main goal, to connect students to resources and culture outside the house, Director Lillian Casillas said.

“We don’t want to make it a competition,” Casillas said.

Martinez’s research showed that some Latino students do not identify with their heritage as strongly as others and every Latino student has his own background that cannot be compared to another’s. While Casillas said this is a good thing, it makes it difficult to cater to every student’s identity.

“The beauty of diversity is also a challenge,” Casillas said.

Because of this, La Casa attempts to create a “buffet of opportunities” for students, Casillas said.

To attract as many students as possible, La Casa hosts events such as open houses and new student dinners every year, as well as year-round tutoring and counseling. In addition, Casillas said La Casa maintains close relationships with students, staff and faculty outside the Latino community, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, so that the organization can direct students to other places, too.

“La Casa doesn’t have an ego to say ‘It’s just us,’” Casillas said. “We are a place that students can come and see if we can offer them the service they’re looking for, and if they can’t find their service here, we can guide them to other places on campus where they can.”

Casillas added that La Casa aims to serve all students, regardless of race.

“When I say how many are involved with La Casa, I don’t say that we have 15,000 members," Casillas said. "I say we have 15,000 points of contact."

While there are several students heavily involved with the organization, a sizeable percentage of them are infrequent visitors, perhaps even one-time visitors. Whether it is coming to the new student dinner for free food or a tutoring session to get math help, students do not need to be heavily involved to be welcome, Casillas said.

Despite the welcoming atmosphere La Casa strives to provide, some students still do not feel welcome. Martinez’s research showed that 12.3 percent of those surveyed who had not been to La Casa said they did not feel welcome there. This, both Casillas and Martinez said, points to a larger problem, not to a problem of La Casa.

“It’s a systemic issue,” Martinez said. “We rely on stereotypical notions on what it’s like to be Latino; all of us do. So, when students say that they don’t feel welcome here, they’re projecting what they think is going to happen, but in reality they don’t know.”

In the end, Casillas and Martinez said there was not much else they could do for students who think that way other than provide them as many opportunities as possible to join the community.

“IU is a monster-size university,” Casillas said. “We just want to make it seem a bit less intimidating by providing a personal space for students, whether that be here or guiding them to somewhere else where they need to be."

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