Student discovers his Latino soul

Marmolejos with Festival Latino co-chair Lynnette Duenas (W'03).

Photo by Daniel R. Burke


Ramon Marmolejos (C/W’01) emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the multicultural mecca of New York City with his parents when he was five. But he didn’t get plugged into Dominican and Latino culture until he came to Penn.

This may sound strange, but he has an explanation. “Most of the Dominicans in New York live in Washington Heights” in upper Manhattan, he said. “I lived most of my life in Queens and went to a semi-private day school.

“So when I got here, I had a thirst for learning about Latino culture.”

He has educated himself well. The management and Latin American studies major has become deeply involved in the campus Latino community. In addition to being a member of the Lambda Upsilon Lambda (La Unidad Latina) fraternity, he was one of the co-chairs of this year’s Festival Latino de Penn.

The festival, a 10-day celebration that ended March 31, included food, music, performing arts, comedy, dance parties, talks on Latino issues and a keynote speech by noted author Julia Alvarez.

Marmolejos was particularly interested in Alvarez, who is also Dominican. “She speaks to a lot of universal issues that are faced by anyone of a different nationality,” he said.

At Penn, Marmolejos has become sensitized to what Alvarez calls “living on the hyphen” — making one’s way between one’s ethnic heritage and mainstream culture. “It’s a challenge to follow the mainstream culture” while staying in touch with one’s own culture, he said.

“When I first came as a freshman, I lived in the Quad. And coming from a New York City environment that was very diverse, coming into this largely Caucasian and Jewish environment was something of a shock. So I used my culture as a shield — I would listen to Spanish music and started taking Latin American studies courses.”

He still finds himself having to explain his culture to others at times, but he also finds working with the various Latino groups on campus rewarding and educational. For instance, he said, “A Chicano, a Mexican and a Mexican-American are three different people. That’s been a valuable lesson for me in my everyday life.”

Those lessons served him well in organizing the festival, which he described as an exercise in diplomacy. “You had to get people from many backgrounds to agree on things. People would ask, Can we get a mariachi band? Or, Can we get this kind of food? Or, The keynote speaker’s Dominican, so can we get this movie for the movie night instead?
“Representing the entire Latino community poses a real challenge.”

Keeping the festival within its $25,000 budget was another. “Co-sponsorship was one way we stretched our budget,” he said. For example, the festival’s featured comedian Marga Gomez, known as the “Latina Fabulosa,” was co-sponsored by the Queer Student Alliance, the Penn Women’s Center, the theater arts program and the women’s studies program, among others.

As for why he chose to co-chair the festival committee, he said, “A large part of it was my desire to do something that would have an immediate impact on the Latino community. And it’s the one event that unites all Latinos across campus.”

Originally published on April 5, 2001