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El pueblo unido: Latin American identity at Yale

Iris Cano, PC ’12, now a member of the Yale Mexican Students Organization (YMSO), made no distinction among three of the prominent Latin American student groups when she first came to Yale. Hailing from a border town in northern Mexico, Cano settled on YMSO after attending the Cultural Connections pre-orientation program. But despite the ostensible similarity between three of the major groups—YMSO, the Latin American Students Organization (LASO), and the Movimiento de Estudiantes Chicanos de Aztlán (MEChA)—Cano would soon learn that the organizations not only have vastly different ideologies, but that membership in any one group can be a strong indicator of background or social status.

When upperclassmen who regularly interact with LASO, YMSO, and MEChA refer to the relationship between the three groups, they inevitably recall a party that was planned two years ago, but never came to fruition. This divisive event revealed to the entire campus the differences between the Latin American student groups.

In the last two years, there has not been a noticeable clash between these groups. When interviewed, however, members of all three organizations mentioned conflict. Four years ago, tensions between MEChA and YMSO came to a head over a Mexican Independence Day celebration. El Grito, as it is called in Spanish, is an event organized annually by both organizations. Before the traditional singing of the Mexican national anthem, MEChA passed around sheets of paper with the lyrics to the anthem of the Zapatistas, a leftist rebel group based in southern Mexico. Lyrics of the Mexican national anthem were not available at the event. Some members of YMSO were surprised by the absence of these lyrics and perceived it as disrespectful. The discomfort went no further.

“It may just have been that someone forgot to make copies; it was not a political, guerrilla-type attack. I don’t see MEChA doing that, ever,” Edgar Díaz-Machado, PC ’11, a former member of MEChA’s national board and of MEChA’s Yale chapter, said in a Herald interview. Moreover, Díaz-Machado claims that the Zapatista anthem can be part of a Mexican Independence Day celebration, given its importance to some of the Chicano activist community. Historically, the Zapatista anthem has been sung at Yale’s El Grito celebrations, and the incident did not impede co-sponsored El Grito events in the years that followed.

But in 2010, a controversial mixer called “Colonizers and Colonized” was co-organized by LASO and the Yale European Union. MEChA members, other Yale students, and faculty did not consider colonization an appropriate theme for a party. The debate led to the cancellation of the party, and to a dialogue hosted by the Cultural Connections program. After Díaz-Machado wrote an article in the Yale Daily News expressing his discomfort in regards to the party, the YEU and LASO apologized and stated that they had not intended to offend any members of the Yale community in choosing the name. They also claimed that “there is no innate, universal ‘common sense’ that allows one to judge whether something will be considered offensive.”

Alejandro Gutiérrez, CC ’13, former president of MEChA, feels a personal link to the party theme. A commenter on Díaz-Machado’s article urged the groups to keep it behind them. “It’s history, we are in another chapter,” he said. But the article itself noted that “many members of La Casa still reel from the negative effects of colonization.” Gutiérrez attributed these differences in opinion to the broader phenomenon of migration and inequality.

Díaz-Machado grew up in a diverse neighborhood in a suburb of Chicago. His parents came to the U.S. from small towns in the northern state of Durango. Today, unemployment and poverty in these towns force many young men and women to migrate in search of better economic opportunities elsewhere. Díaz-Machado is the first member of his family to go to college.

Lissy Giacomán, MC ’12, a former president of YMSO, grew up in San Pedro Garza García, one of the wealthiest municipalities in Mexico. In her high school, the American School of Monterrey, there is a strong tradition of encouraging the best students to seek college education in the United States. Historically, Mexican students at Yale—as well as other Latin Americans—come from similar schools. Many members of Giacomán’s family have college degrees.

At Yale, though, Díaz-Machado and Giacomán lead similar lives: long study hours in crowded libraries, meetings with their respective organizations, calls home on the weekends. They both know Toad’s aroma of cigarettes and beer. Here they are only Yalies, and outside of the bubble everyone can characterize them as such.

All of the members interviewed agreed that the socioeconomic environment in which one grows up is relevant. Different backgrounds explain diversity in mindsets. Cano asserted that even when these differences result in an argument, the overall feeling is not confrontational. She went on to say that sometimes extremist views from both sides get blown out of proportion and do not represent the general feeling of any group. Murat Dagli, PC ’14, YMSO president and member of LASO, claimed that frictions between organizations should not be translated into personal conflicts. Furthermore, he said that friendships are stronger than any “institutional” disagreement.

MEChA distinguishes itself by a strong political component that neither YMSO nor LASO has, and is also registered with Dwight Hall Center for Public Service and Social Justice. Giacomán agreed that YMSO and LASO are more focused in cultural themes, rather than social activism. Gutiérrez stressed that MEChA is a nationwide political organization that advocates for civil rights. The Zapatista anthem that sullied 2008’s El Grito is closely tied to political struggle and oppression in Mexico, and is relevant to anyone who identifies him or herself as Chicano. Viewing MEChA as a political organization and YMSO and LASO as international student organizations explains much of the organization’s contentious recent history.

In spite of these clashes, MEChA and YMSO— and, to a lesser extent, LASO— work together extensively. “The aim is always working together,” affirms Diego Salvatierra, PC ’13, and president of LASO. Taking into account the differences among the organizations, it is a given that they will pursue different objectives and interests. Both Giacomán and Gutiérrez, former presidents of YMSO and MEChA respectively, spoke about the collaborative events they have organized. They worked together when celebrating the bicentennial of many Latin American nations’ independence days, and YMSO is currently organizing a symposium called “Convergencias 2012: Mexico’s Roadmap Forward” with assistance from MEChA.
All of the members interviewed agreed that conflict is not intrinsically part of the three Latin American student organizations. Cano said that clashes could occur between any groups at any level without transforming into perpetual conflict. Díaz-Machado called it “cold war politics.”

Both Gutiérrez and Díaz-Machado agreed separately that if more Latin American students from a wider variety of socioeconomic environments came to Yale, underrepresented groups would grow in number, broadening mutual understanding.

“I have grown and learned so much these years,” said Giacomán. She highlighted the common work of the organizations and mentioned Mexico as an inspiration. Because these groups share an unquestionably strong link to Latin America, working together goes beyond political differences and economic backgrounds. The different ways they express Latin American identity are the differences that nourish Yale’s diversity. “We can be very diplomatic and respectful with each other,” Díaz-Machado said. “We don’t have to have a battle about our disagreements.”

Cuesy Edgar attends Yale through the   Visiting International Students Program

One Response

  1. Ana Alonso says:

    The article provides interesting insights! congratulations!

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