A casa of their own

Penn’s Latino students wanted a meeting place they could call their own and an administrator who would look out for their interests.

With the opening of La Casa Latina, they -- and the larger Latino community on campus -- now have both.

The process that resulted in the new facility began in the spring of 1998, when the University’s Latino student organizations pulled out of the United Minorities Council and the Greenfield Intercultural Center, according to Lilvia Soto, assistant dean for advising in the College and La Casa Latina’s new director.

While the concerns the students expressed at the time had to do with space and staff, they had a larger issue as well. “Our main concern was maintaining and increasing the Latino presence on campus among students, faculty and staff,” said Jonathan Cantu (C’00), president of MEChA, Penn’s Chicano student group, and a member of the committee that found a home for the new center.

Increasing that Latino presence is part of La Casa Latina’s mission, and Soto, who helped form the Latino Faculty and Staff Association at Penn four years ago, is both well-suited to the task and helped the students realize their dream.

“I felt the students’ complaint was fair, and though I knew there were very few Latino faculty and administrators, I felt that the students shouldn’t stand alone,” she said. So she met regularly with a few of her colleagues to help the students find a space and get activities off the ground.

Their work was rewarded with the center’s opening in Westminster House, behind the Tabernacle United Church at 37th and Chestnut streets, last month.

Besides providing the campus Latino community with an advocate and meeting space, La Casa Latina hopes to strengthen ties between current students, staff and alumni through use of the World Wide Web. The center has received a diversity grant from the Provost that will help launch “La Teleraña Latina” (“The Latin Web”), a Web site and e-mail list aimed at strengthening ties between the campus Latino community and the more than 3,000 Penn alumni of Hispanic origin.

Soto also said that La Casa Latina and campus Latino organizations were ready to work with other campus ethnic and cultural groups from an autonomous position. “We believe in a federation type of government,” she said.

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Originally published on October 14, 1999