Last month, more than 100 students packed a lecture hall at the Reuben-Cooke Building for a teach-in to advocate for Latinx students. They signed a petition requesting that the administration respond to several demands that all the Latinx organizations at Duke University had made a week prior.
“Since President Price has told the administration not to engage, we will make him engage,” Duke senior Carlo-Alfonso Garza, the founder of the Duke Latinx Business Organization, told the crowd from the front podium.
In the past month, students have written a chapter in the history book of Latinx activism at Duke.
For the first time, 12 Latinx organizations united to develop and publish the list of nine demands (see box) to the Duke administration, released on January 28.
Following the release of the demands, the organizations hosted the teach-in on February 9, where they shared Latinx student perspectives through speeches, poems, and personal reflections.
“After being flown in from a rural midwestern town, I was infatuated by the school that I thought had picked me,” senior Carlos Dias told the crowd in the lecture hall. “This facade washed away throughout the first semester …. I couldn’t find community at Duke until I found La Casa my sophomore year.”
La Casa is Duke’s designated Latinx cultural center, although calling it a “center” is a stretch. It’s really just a space, the size of a living room, hidden in the basement of the Bryan Center, Duke’s student center on West Campus.
The Latinx community at Duke says it has grown tired of repeated unkept promises from administrators. Their demands, gathered from different organizations and published in The Chronicle, Duke’s student-run newspaper, seek to create a more inclusive and equitable environment for the Latinx undergraduate community.
“We demand Duke establish a plan to follow ALL these demands to fruition in a transparent, ethical, and effective way that will prioritize student, faculty and staff input,” the groups state. “They are hardly demands, they are a plea for the respect and acknowledgement of marginalized students.”
In his freshman year, Garza saw an exhibit about the Allen Building takeover displayed in Duke’s Perkins Library, showcasing African American students’ occupation of the Allen Building, the university administration’s main office building, in 1969. The takeover captured the community’s attention and highlighted the students’ demands.
The exhibit gave Garza “an idea that Latinx student activism could be placed in the same location,” he says. Three years later, Garza’s idea became the Our History, Our Voice: Latinx at Duke exhibit currently in Perkins, which formally opened February 21.
Garza reached out to the individual organizations last fall. Organizations sent a representative, and the students formed a committee, which ultimately created the list of demands.
“After seeing the [Our History, Our Voice] exhibit the first time in person, it brought me to tears,” Garza says. “I didn’t know if it was going to be possible. I hoped it would happen, but I needed support.”
“[Garza] took the lead of organizing the groups,” says Sophia Vera, copresident and committee representative of Mi Gente. “This is the first time we’ve had a group come together like this.”
But since the groups released the demands, the university’s administration has largely been quiet.
“Unfortunately,” said Garza in his opening remarks at the teach-in, “we’ve received word that President Price has told administrators to not engage.”
The administration has not released a public statement on the demands but did respond to questions from the INDY.
“Demands cause all of us to be reactive instead of sitting down together and talking through strategies for priorities,” wrote Catherine Pierce, the chief of staff for student affairs on behalf of Duke’s vice president and vice provost Mary McMahon and associate vice president Shruti Desai. “When students proactively reach out, we are able to guide them as opposed to react …. The students bring us concerns, and we work to provide education about the process for change and if immediate change is possible, we make the change.”
This isn’t the first time that Duke’s Latinx students have made requests to the university to make changes. Previously, in 1997, 2003, 2005, and 2016, individual organizations, such as Mi Gente, Duke’s largest Latinx student organization, have publicized demands.
This year marks the fifth time since Duke’s founding that Latinx groups have made demands, or requests, but haven’t received deliberate consideration.
“Many of us within student affairs are new and cannot address what has and has not happened in the past,” Pierce wrote. “What we can say, is that we are committed to making Duke a place where marginalized students feel a sense of belonging and to putting in place policies and procedures that align with equity and inclusion.”
Given Duke’s $8.6 billion endowment—the 10th largest in the country—the demands seem within reason. They were crafted through a two-semester effort involving the 12 cosigned organizations: Mi Gente, Brazilian Student Association, La Unidad Latina, Lambda Upsilon Lambda, Rho Chapter, Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, Zeta Mu Chapter, Latinx Business Organization, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Latinx/a Women’s Alliance, Define America, and Latin American Student Organization.
These organizations represent the estimated 10 percent, according to the university registrar, of Duke undergraduates who identify as Hispanic or Latinx.
“What’s different and special about this time,” says senior Lissette Araya, a representative for Lambda Theta Alpha Latin Sorority, “is that we included the voices of all the Latinx organizations that are equally affected by Duke policies.”
Though the administration has been unresponsive so far, some Latinx students still hold some hope of being heard.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” Araya says. “These are repeat demands … so there’s hope this time that we’ll be able to make significant progress, but sadly we won’t be surprised if the administration responds unfavorably and doesn’t accept the demands immediately.”
As of last week, only three out of the 20 administrators contacted had agreed to a meeting. But Pierce says the administration has “already accomplished a few of the asks, such as graduation funding, Latino Student Recruitment Weekend funding, and have recently signed a contract with TransPerfect that allows translation in more than 100 languages.”
“These pieces are a small portion of their demands,” Pierce continues. “We will continue to meet with these students and help them network with individuals who oversee specific areas. These systems were not built overnight and will not be repaired and restructured overnight.”
Other students are less hopeful.
“No matter what method we try, we get shot down,” says Vera. “What we see is that we’ve tried, it doesn’t work.”
“I don’t expect to see any of these demands met while I’m here,” adds Garza. “It’s one thing to make demands, it’s another to see them through. We will develop a plan to educate the Latinx students coming in with the institutional knowledge needed to keep fighting for these demands.”
Though they say the lack of response from the administration has been disappointing, the students say they will keep pushing for the demands and are proud of what they’ve achieved so far.
“At the end of the day,” says Vera, “the community will always have this unification.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.