The Equalizing Force of History
By Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Vice President for the Division of Equity and Inclusion
History is a great equalizer. It cuts through rhetoric and propaganda with the mere presence of the truth. During these times where the people in the highest levels of politics and law enforcement are increasingly and vindictively targeting the Latinx community, celebrations like Latinx Heritage Month take on that much more significance. These celebrations are not only an opportunity to honor the heroes of the past and present and recognize their achievements, they are also a moment for us to reflect and decide how we plan to build on those contributions to overcome the challenges of today.
Latinx Heritage Month originated as a week-long celebration under President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Known at the time as Hispanic Heritage Week, it eventually became a month-long observation, which we officially recognize from September 15 through October 15 every year. During this time, we highlight and honor the contributions of Americans of Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean, and Central and South American descent in all aspects of American life.
Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ meteoric rise in politics, Guillermo Del Toro’s domination of the Academy Awards, or the constant influence of business leaders like PG&E CEO and President Geisha Williams, Latinx culture has and continues to make an undeniable imprint on our country. For many of us, this is encouraging, but for some, it’s the source of intense, irrational fear. This fear manifests in the form of racist verbal and physical abuse in everyday interactions, the creation of policies that target immigrants by name and the Latinx community in spirit, and rhetoric from the highest levels of power endorsing this bigotry campaign.
As a top research university, we play a powerful role in fighting to reverse this tide. This includes embracing our responsibility to use our outsized platform to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. Specifically, it is our duty to constantly evaluate how we can better serve the unique needs of marginalized communities on our campus, amplify their voices and create systems and programs that encourage empowerment.
Our most recent demographic data gives us a glimpse into the status of those efforts. Between the 2006-07 and 2016-17 school years, Latinx enrollment has increased from 3.4 percent to 10.4 percent. Furthermore, the percentage of Latinx graduate students has more than doubled from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent in that same time period. Meanwhile, the percentage of Latinx employees has risen from 3.1 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 5.2 percent in 2016-17.
While these numbers represent progress, they are still far from properly reflecting the size and influence of Oregon’s Latinx community. Even on our campus, the numbers don’t do justice to the impact of organizations like the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies (CLLAS), MECha, and the Latino Strategy Group, which have provided a voice for and inspired countless students, both in and beyond the confines of the University of Oregon.
For this year’s Latinx Heritage Month, we seek to not just celebrate the heroes of the past, but honor the work of changemakers in the present. To this end, the UO, Eugene and Lane County will be hosting a variety of activities to educate and engage members of the community, including film screenings and teach-ins with director Peter Bratt, the Cascadia Concert Opera’s presentation of “Tango of the White Gardenia,” and Fiesta Cultural, Lane County’s biggest annual celebration of Latinx arts and culture. The festivities will also include “Power in Puerto Rico,” a special fundraiser which will be held at Temple Beth Israel and feature Puerto Rican food and music, as well as history and analysis from UO professor Cecilia Enjuto-Rangel and Director of Central Latino Americano David Sáez. We hope you can join us!