Because of my role as a Peer Liaison, or a counselor for the incoming Latino first-year students for La Casa Cultural, the Latino community center at Yale University, I feel intimately tied to the center. Aside from its layout, which does indeed have some of the basic characteristics of a house, La Casa has become a physical representation of my home at Yale. It has provided me not only with a welcoming space but also with a vibrant community that feels very much like a family. Because of my position as a Peer Liaison, I am aware of the negative stigmas that surround La Casa. Criticisms of the house, which align with the criticisms of other cultural centers as well, include the idea that the center promotes self-segregation; there is an existing idea on campus that La Casa is a place 'only for Latinos,' a claim that is far from accurate.
Hearing the arguments that people have against the center sadden me, particularly because the center has enriched my Yale life profoundly in various ways, the most significant of which was allowing me to have met some of my now closest friends.
Growing up in Pacifica, California, a predominantly white suburb of Northern California, I cannot say that I grew up in a particularly strong Hispanic community. What I did have, however, was a tightly-knit community amongst my family. My high school experience, on the other hand, was a significant change from my younger years in that the San Francisco high school that I attended was much more diverse. With an even percentage of representation of African-Americans, Latinos, Caucasians, and Asians, culture was an issue that was definitely at the forefront of many conversations. While I had always had a visible presence of Hispanic culture at least in some part in my life, it took being transplanted into a completely different demographic for me to realize how much that presence mattered to me.
The first semester of my freshman year at Yale was too bombarded with new experiences for me to have time to reflect on my happiness. Second semester, when friendships began to solidify, and when winter set in, I was miserable. I felt that something was missing but was unable to determine what exactly that was. Upon receiving a job at La Casa, I felt relieved that I had found people who understood my background, and soon, I found myself with friends who knew more about me within a few weeks of knowing me than friends who I had had all year.
After becoming a Peer Liaison, it is indeed true that a significant portion of my closest friends are now Hispanic, but to frame that development in a way that makes it seem as though my friends and I are purposely forming a selective in-group is both wrong and harmful. It is not a crazed, revolutionary claim to say that common backgrounds ease the forming of friendships. Conversation is definitely facilitated when two parties can talk for long periods of time about the novelas their mothers watch or the corner market that their family buys from every week. The problem is not that these commonalities cause people to gravitate to one another, but that there is a lack of cultural understanding between people of different backgrounds that should be better bridged. The "self-segregation" argument should not be used as a vehicle to discourage centers such as La Casa, but rather, should be used as fuel to spark more inter-cultural dialogue that would eventually lead to an enhanced inter-cultural understanding. By encouraging members from other communities to attend events put on by La Casa, talks about hometowns and cultural traditions will not be limited to any one sub-group of people, but instead, will be dynamic conversations with rich input from people of many different backgrounds.