On Thursday, Sept. 15, a group of nearly 100 students, faculty, and staff attended the Latinx History at Amherst event at the Eighmy Powerhouse, organized to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the student group La Causa and the fifth anniversary of the college’s Latinx and Latin American Studies Department (LLAS).
The event, hosted by the LLAS, history, and Spanish departments, consisted of three panels moderated by professors and featuring alumni ranging from the class of 1974 up to the class of 2020. The three panels addressed the history of La Causa, Latinx student activism over the years, and the founding of the LLAS department, respectively.
Preceded by a light breakfast, the day’s events officially began with an introduction by Rick Lopez ’93, the Anson D. Morse 1871 professor of history and professor of environmental studies, dean of new students, and chair of LLAS. Lopez opened the first panel by situating the event within the broader history of the college. Reflecting on the impact of the Latinx community to the greater college community, Lopez emphasized that the stories of La Causa, LLAS, and Latinx activism are central to “the stor[ies] of the college, a solid part of what Amherst is.”
President Michael Elliott expressed similar sentiments and called attention to the event’s role both as part of a national conversation on Latinx identity throughout the U.S. and as a reminder of the profound impact that the Latinx community has had at Amherst. Introductions were immediately followed by the first of three panels, which centered on the founding of La Causa, the established cultural, political, and service organization for students interested in Latinx/é issues and cultural awareness on campus.
Panelist Edmundo Orozco ’74 detailed how La Causa began not as an official organization, but as a support group through which members of the college's Latinx community could encourage each other and share information about classes and resources on campus. Orozco credited fellow panelist Les Purificación ’76 with the naming of La Causa (“The Cause” in English) and Tomás Gonzalez ’76 with the structuring of the organization, which officially came about following Orozco’s request for funding to the Student Allocations Committee.
Orozco acknowledged that he and the other founding members of La Causa were not the first members of the Latinx community to attend Amherst. Yet, he also noted that many of those who came before them were generally from more privileged and well-established backgrounds. “[Those who came previously] had a career path, they had a background, and we were trying to establish that,” Orozco said. “I believed that our purpose here at Amherst was to become educated and become voices for those that didn’t have voices.”
Panelist Ricardo Morales ’78 similarly emphasized La Causa’s goal of serving as a vehicle for social change, allowing the Latinx community to draw attention to the issues affecting them. “Whether it’s in law, in politics, whatever you do, let people know that we’re here to be counted, and counted upon in a way that’s meaningful not only to ourselves but to those who come behind us,” Morales said.
Following a brief recess, new panelists joined the stage for a discussion on Latinx student activism at the college throughout the past 50 years.
Edwin Camacho ’79, who served as a chairman of La Causa, described the group’s early efforts at campus activism, including the events leading up to its takeover of the college snack bar in 1978, then located in Fayerweather Hall.
Camacho detailed how, after being denied funding for La Causa by the Student Allocations Committee, and relegated to meeting in a dormitory basement, members of La Causa decided to engage in the protest.
“I read in the code of conduct that if you interfere with the process of learning you’ll be suspended, and so I decided that the snack bar was the way to go, interfering with people having a hamburger,” Camacho said. “So, we marched over to the Student Center, and we told the ladies behind the counter that we’d be taking over the place, and that’s when the sit-in began.”
Camacho relayed that, after receiving coverage from both The Student and outside news outlets, the then-president of the college engaged La Causa in discussion, and eventually the group was granted a room at the then-student center at the heart of campus, itself a statement about the group’s role as an important part of the broader college community.
Following the discussion of the snack bar takeover, Janine Craane ’82, who entered Amherst soon after it opened its doors to women, discussed efforts to combat machismo on campus, including the creation of a “Big Sister Little Sister” program designed to promote mentorship and community between female students.
“There were so many mistakes I made because I had no one to help, and a lot of the professors and alum[ni] were really hostile,” Craane said. “I was able to share things with [female underclassmen] about [life on campus] and they’re incredible friends to this day.”
Gilberto Simpson ’94 also stressed the importance of building cross-group connections, highlighting the special relationship between La Causa and the Black Students Union (BSU). The groups stood in solidarity with each other during La Causa’s takeover of the snack bar, and the BSU’s takeover of Converse Hall in response to the administration’s failure to adequately represent people of color in their hiring practices for faculty.
“We tried to avoid [suspension] in our takeover of the snack bar, but because the BSU had supported us, we supported them,” Simpson said. Though the BSU’s takeover of Converse Hall resulted in suspension for those who participated — due to the Hall’s designation as a place of learning — Simpson emphasized that members of La Causa were willing to accept suspension for the furtherance of BSU’s mission.
Following a break for lunch, attendees reunited for the final panel of the day, which celebrated and reflected on the history and creation of the LLAS department. Carlos González ’14 recalled how, in his time at Amherst, pent-up frustration from past generations of Amherst students continued to rise within the Latinx community on campus as the college resisted the creation of a Latino studies program at the college. Such resistance was especially poignant in light of the presence of other ethnic studies departments on campus, and the important cultural role that the Latinx community plays within the United States as the largest ethnic minority group in the country.
“There was a sense that La Causa was expected to be the ones putting on cultural programming for the university, and teaching students about Latino and Latin American culture,” González said. “We were happy to be at the table, but we felt that planning this had to be dealt with at a [college-wide] level.” Following an extended series of conversations between faculty, studies, and the president, the creation of an exploratory committee, continuing student activism, and a unanimous faculty vote in favor of the department, the efforts culminated in the LLAS department of today.
Soledad Slowing-Romero ’20, the first ever Amherst student to write a thesis in the LLAS department, reflected on the importance of having the opportunity to study Latinx history through the LLAS curriculum.
“There’s an erasure of Latino history in most of our school curricula,” Slowing-Romero said. “It was a whole new thing to see that my history mattered and that it was actually something that I could work on and write a thesis on. I was thrilled to be able to be in a space where I could focus on Latin American studies, it was another level of feeling like I actually belonged in the space.”
The day’s events ended with a reception for students, panelists, and other community members, accompanied by live music. Victoria Foley ’23, who helped organize the event, reflected on its mission as a means of celebrating the contributions of Latinx students to the Amherst community. “The history of La Causa and other Latinx groups is incredibly rich and involves a lot of activism, time, and sacrifices that were [made] so future students could feel more comfortable at Amherst,” Foley said. “We hope the conference was a lot of fun, and a chance for people to enjoy themselves with others who are a part of the Latinx culture.”