My Alma Mater: Home Among the Murals

From Logan Square to the U of I’s La Casa, one student found a home away from home

Laura Castañeda reunites with her mentor, Juan Gonzalez. (Image courtesy of Laura Castañeda)
From Logan Square to the U of I’s La Casa, one student found a home away from home

There will always be a few places in my life that I will never forget. La Casa Cultural Latina at the University of Illinois is one of them.

When I arrived on campus in 1982, I was like many wide-eyed freshmen: lost. But unlike most of my fellow students, I faced another huge obstacle—I was Latina and grew up in area code 312, inner-city Chicago.

I came to the U of I from Kelvyn Park High School, on the city’s Northwest Side, where the student population was well over 50 percent Latino. The University, on the other hand, was only 1 percent Latino. When I arrived in Urbana, I knew only three people: Darlene Merced, 85 LAS, and Yolanda Perez, who were a year older than me and from my high school; and my cousin Ray, who grew up in a tiny town and, unlike the rest of us, was used to being one of the few Latinos in school.

Darlene and Yolanda took me under their wings. They introduced me to other inner-city students at La Casa Cultural Latina, and La Casa became my second home. There, I got involved with student organizations, politics, activism and social events. I made many new friends, and we partied together and leaned on one another when times were tough.

During my junior year, I became co-editor of a literary magazine and newsletter at La Casa. It sparked my passion for storytelling and led me to become an English major, with hopes of someday being a journalist.

And yet, there were days when I was homesick and felt like giving up. As I was walking to class, I’d hear other students’ conversations about spring vacations they were taking with their families and knew that would never happen to me. I found myself worrying about finances, calling home and hoping my dad could scrape up enough money to help pay my housing bill.

But there were also days when I sat in the sala at La Casa, daydreaming and staring at the murals on the living room walls. They depicted our history and our struggles, and they gave me hope.

We had a motto at La Casa: “Sí, se puede!” Yes, we can. And you know what? We did.

Laura Castañeda

“On graduation day,” Castañeda remembers, “La Casa held its own small ceremony. It was bilingual, it was intimate, and it was special.” (Image courtesy of Laura Castañeda)

We all left the U of I better people than we were when we arrived, thanks to wonderful mentors such as Dr. Juan Gonzalez, Dr. Agapito Mendoza and Judith Martinez. Today, many of my inner-city friends are engineers, doctors, lawyers and politicians.

As for me: I achieved my goal of becoming a journalist. And to my surprise, I also ended up in academia, teaching radio, television and film.

So many times over the years, I’d recognize myself in my students. I’d think about my time at the U of I and what it was like to be a young person. And I always tried to offer them the same encouragement that I received from my extended family at La Casa, in that special house on Chalmers Street. —Edited by Ryan A. Ross

A longtime resident of San Diego, Laura Castañeda is the community opinion editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune and professor emeritus in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at San Diego City College.

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