La Casa Cultural Latina

Celebrating 50 years of helping Latinx students feel like they belong

Celebrating 50 years of helping Latinx students feel like they belong

Colorful mural of a female student holding books among plants with a rainbow and "vote" sign.

Established in 1974, La Casa Cultural Latina originally occupied a converted house at 510 E. Chalmers St. in Champaign. To help make Latinx students feel at home, undergraduate Oscar Martinez and several other students painted murals on the ceiling (shown) and walls. Two of the restored murals are on display at the Illini Union and the Spurlock Museum. (Image courtesy of STRATCOM)

When she came to Illinois from Puerto Rico in 1984, Nancy Nieves Muñoz, PHD ’87 ED, discovered the meaning of culture shock. “When I arrived, I was scared because I was far from home,” she recalls. “No cellphones, no family, no friends. I wasn’t even sure where Urbana-Champaign was on the map. I was the only Latina in my department, but my [College of Education] advisor, Dr. Jeanette McCollum, went out of her way to make me feel part of the University. She also bought me my first snow boots after my first snowstorm when I almost froze.”

Conversely, Cynthia Nambo, ’93 LAS, was used to cold weather, coming from Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood—but like Muñoz, she had never been away from home. Nambo was 18 when she arrived in Champaign, and even though she was an excellent student, leaving behind everything she knew came with mixed feelings. It was unfamiliar territory, but also an escape from what she describes as an unstable home environment. Her parents, Mexican immigrants, struggled financially, and as the eldest, she often acted as translator and health advocate for her ailing mother, while also caring for her younger siblings.

Happily, Nambo found her bearings when she learned about La Casa Cultural Latina and met other first-generation Latinx students on campus with whom she could identify.

“La Casa became my ‘convivio’ [social gathering place],” Nambo explains. “It gave me hope for a better future. And it was a cultural awakening. As a young Mexicana, I didn’t even really know who I was. La Casa was a safe space to engage, explore and own that. Too often we are taught to be invisible, to hide. But for me, La Casa gave me permission to ‘sonar y volar,’ which means to dream and soar.”

Those feelings are precisely what La Casa Cultural Latina was created to support, and Nambo’s and Muñoz’s stories represent just two of the many reasons the student organization is proud to celebrate its 50th anniversary in April 2024. But it’s been a long and sometimes difficult half-century getting to this milestone.

In the 1970s, Latinx students comprised less than 1 percent of the University’s 35,000 students. Latinx faculty and staff were sparse as well, and Latinx students felt they would feel more at home on campus if they had their own community space.

“They wanted a place. And they wanted more recognition from the University,” recalls Willard Broom, ’72 MEDIA, MS ’78 ED, who was an associate dean in the Office of Student Affairs at the time. “They wanted more Latino students. They wanted better financial aid. They had wishes that later became global demands.”

That push was part of a broader Latinx student movement happening across U.S. campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, as nearby as Macomb, Ill., Western Illinois University had established a Latino cultural center with a full-time director in 1973—and U of I Latinx wanted one, too. So they lobbied Hugh Satterlee, vice chancellor for campus affairs, as well as Daniel Perrino, ’48 FAA, MS ’48 FAA, the U of I’s dean of student programs and services.

The students found a solid ally in Perrino, Broom says, adding that he and Perrino shared family backgrounds that allowed them to relate to the immigrant experience. “Perrino understood lots of things that many Americans didn’t, and he was in a position to do something about it,” Broom says.

One day, Perrino took Broom on a drive across campus, out past First Street near the Abbott Power Plant, where the University owned some old offices. “We parked in front of this building, and [Perrino] said, ‘This is what the University is authorizing to use as a space for the Latino students,’” Broom recalls. “I said, ‘Well it’s okay, but we are way out here. This is a terrible location.’ The next thing I knew, he had a two-story house on Chalmers Street.”

Broom says he doesn’t know how Perrino found the money for the space, but he credits him with making it possible for students to open the doors to the first La Casa Cultural Latina facility in 1974. La Casa offered the U of I’s Latinx students camaraderie and self-identity, as well as tutoring, mentoring, a Latinx arts and culture library, and a unique “convivio” to call their own. Or so its new tenants thought.


Energetic group of students pose with "thumbs-up" and "number one" fingers in the air on an outside track.

Juan Gonzalez, one of the first full-time directors of La Casa Cultural Latina, instituted a number of programs, including the Latino Olympics, which allowed U of I Latinx students to compete against Latinx students at other in-state college campuses. (Image courtesy of Laura Castañeda)

The students felt victorious but still insisted something was missing. They were used to their own neighborhoods back home where murals adorned many buildings. So, in 1974 undergraduate Oscar Martinez decided to give the “casita” an identity of its own. Without permission, but using their own money and supplies, Martinez and a group of dedicated artists painted the walls and ceilings in the Center’s “sala,” or living room, with giant, colorful murals. “I wanted to capture the images of the Latino students as we all struggled to succeed at the University, and I wanted to portray the challenges in retaining our cultural identity as we worked to be accepted by the mainstream,” Martinez said.

However, Latino arts and cultural identity were only two of La Casa’s original goals. Academics were a high priority, too, as was creating more overall visibility on campus. Those aims required leadership, and Broom says graduate students served as part-time directors until the University found the funds to let La Casa hire a full-time director. But finding the right person to take that job wasn’t easy, since the post did not include academic advancement, and its initial annual salary was listed between $9,000 and $13,000 ($48,000–$70,000 in 2024 dollars), according to a 1976 article in The Daily Illini.

All the same, the University eventually filled the position, and one of the first directors was Juan Gonzalez, PHD ’82 ED, who came to Illinois from the University of Texas Austin to finish his doctorate. He saw firsthand the need for La Casa and what it meant to the University’s Latinx students. “It was our ‘barrio’ [neighborhood], the only place where I and many others felt we belonged,” he explains. “I saw my biggest role as mentoring, keeping an eye on students, trying to see if everyone was keeping up with their studies.”

During his 1981–82 tenure, Gonzalez also oversaw related campus organizations, including the Puerto Rican Student Association and La Colectiva Latina, a student-led organization serving the Urbana-Champaign Latinx community. He brought in nationally recognized motivational speakers such as Samuel Betances and Mexican American author and poet, Tomás Rivera. Gonzalez also instituted the Latino Olympics, which allowed its athletes to travel to in-state campuses to compete against other Latinx students. The Olympians’ trophies remain at La Casa today.

Among the “mujeres,” or women, who stood out as Latina role models was Judith Martinez, a Honduran native who served as La Casa’s director from 1986 to 1991. She launched numerous academic, social, cultural and educational programs at La Casa, including its Spanish Night. Students who wanted to improve their Spanish could drop by to casually “platicar,” or talk.

“People could practice the language without feeling embarrassed about how well they spoke it,” Martinez explains. “It was a great success. We jokingly said, ‘Okay, whoever speaks English tonight has to put 25 cents in a jar,’ and we put a jar in the middle of the room.”

She also is proud of the academic growth she witnessed among the U of I’s Latinx students during her time with La Casa. “When I came in 1986, we graduated 12 Latinos that year. When I left in 1991, there were over 100,” she says. Martinez also instituted La Casa’s Latino Family Visit Day, which brings in parents of mostly inner-city incoming Latinx students for a culturally sensitive, daylong orientation program that explains all aspects of University life, from navigating the financial-aid process to adjusting to separation from home.

Alicia Rodriguez, PHD ’06 ED, came to Illinois the same year Martinez became La Casa’s director. A self-described “mulata-Cubana,” Rodriguez was glad to find La Casa and got involved in its feminist movement, mentoring many undergraduates along the way. She also bonded with other mujeres at the local YWCA, forming a group called La Fuerza, or “The Strength.” Rodriguez later served as associate director of the University’s Latina/Latino Studies Program from 2003 to 2010 and remains its academic advisor.

Over her years as La Casa’s director, Rodriguez saw more Latinx students on campus but knew their numbers still didn’t reflect the state’s Latinx population. Not coincidentally, political activism at La Casa was resurging.

Latinx students felt that University leadership was unresponsive to their needs, and retention and recruitment were recurring themes. La Casa’s newsletter, La Carta Informativa, was temporarily suspended in the fall 1990 semester because its then-editor, Lisa O’Brien, refused to be censored by letting Office of Student Minority Affairs’ administrators approve an issue of the newsletter before it was published. She stepped down in protest, publishing an opinion piece in the newsletter the following spring titled, “La Carta Informativa: Censored? You Decide.”

“Once again, students began expressing frustration with the University administration because they felt ignored,” Rodriguez says. “They started meeting with campus leaders in hopes of seeing change. Some felt like they were being shut out, disrespected. The administrators were not willing to talk to them, so the students began to organize among themselves and decided to have a peaceful demonstration on Cinco de Mayo in 1992.”

Rodriguez was there as hundreds of Latinx students and their supporters marched to the Henry Administration Building and held a sit-in. They linked arms and shouted, “The people united will never be defeated.” The 10-hour protest ended with three arrests and the beating of several students by law-enforcement officers.

Collage of images that include events, murals, graduates and a newspaper clipping.

The cornerstones of La Casa Cultural Latina were the arts, culture, academics and activism, which manifested themselves into everything from the annual Latinx Congratulatory to helping Latinx students acclimate to campus life, publishing the monthly newsletter La Carta Informativa, holding a 10-hour sit-in at the Henry Administration Building, and establishing alliances with other underrepresented campus groups, including African American and Native American student organizations. (Images courtesy of La Casa Cultural Latina, Laura Castañeda, Cynthia Nambo, STRATCOM and UIAA)

Nambo was one of the sit-in’s organizers. She explains that it was not an impulsive event but rather the result of momentum that had been building for quite some time. Incidents such as the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles were sparking protests nationwide—and students at La Casa were experiencing racism of their own.

“One time, it snowed really bad and we were inside La Casa when some fraternity guys came by and started throwing snowballs at [the building],” Nambo recalls. “They were screaming epithets like ‘Go back where you come from!’ It was scary.”

Following the sit-in, student activist Mary Carmen, ’00 LAS, ’04 UIC, MED ’06 UIC, wrote an article in the September 1992 issue of La Carta Informativa titled, “UIUC: You Will Deliver,” that included a list of Latinx students’ demands to University administration. Latinx students also started forming bonds with other underrepresented groups on campus, including African American and Native American student organizations, to demand change.

“It was deep transformation and mobilization filled with hope and possibility,” Nambo says. “It was intense. It was difficult, but doing it was non-negotiable.”

Despite censorship attempts, that intense activism was still captured in La Carta Informativa, and graduate student Maria Carvajal, ’21 LAS, spent hours researching the newsletter’s significance in the University’s Student Life and Culture Archives as part of her thesis.

“It captured the histories and traditions of student life and culture,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of student-created texts and archives, [but] many of the issues actually say ‘La Carta is created by students.’ For me, it was a spark, because students were in charge of this, students were writing it, students were editing it and students were publishing it.”

The spark that Carvajal discovered reignited a commitment to student activism at La Casa Cultural Latina that continues today. The student organization was born out of “la lucha,” or the struggle, and its success has not come without conflict. But for Illinois’ Latinx alumni, that struggle has paid off. Hundreds of Latinx students who turned to La Casa for support and acceptance are now successful professionals in law, medicine, engineering, education and a host of other fields.

“First and foremost, La Casa connected me with students who had familiar experiences, first-generation students growing up in Chicago neighborhoods—and I’m still friends with many today,” says Heriberto Ruiz, ’88  ACES, a self-employed mortgage broker. “La Casa helped me to be proud of who I am and grow as a leader. I don’t know if I would have made it at the U of I without the support of La Casa.”

Today, Latinx represent 11 percent of the U of I’s student population. And according to the University’s Office for Access and Equity, as of October 2023, 8.7 percent of Illinois faculty and 4.4 percent of staff identify as Latinx.

Even with these impressive gains, La Casa Cultural Latina must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the next generation of Latinx students, says Mariana Ortega, who has served as La Casa’s director since 2019. “‘Latinidad’ [the various attributes shared by Latin American people] is not monolithic,” she explains. “We don’t look a certain way. Our bodies are not a certain way. Our color is not a certain way. And our experiences are not a certain way.”

La Casa hosts more than 35 registered student organizations, including Lunch on Us, a noontime series held every Thursday during the school year that discusses campus resources, health and wellness, college living and community connections. La Casa also helps undocumented students and those affected by the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy to learn about relevant legislation, campus accommodations and their rights, with a goal to support a new generation of U of I students.

One of those students, Kevin Garcia, ’21 LAS, benefitted from La Casa’s DACA resources and now serves as treasurer of the University’s Latina/Latino Alumni Association. “From my freshman year to what I have seen now as an alumnus, La Casa’s presence and importance in the community has grown dramatically,” Garcia says. “Its programming attracts so many students in need of its services.”

Those services are clearly making a difference. Last June, the 2023 Latinx Congratulatory (graduation) Ceremony drew an audience of more than 3,000 people, its largest ever. That record-breaking attendance meant the event had to be moved from the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to the State Farm Center—where it also was livestreamed to graduates’ families across the globe.

La Casa now has a Chancellor-appointed advisory committee whose mission is to review, evaluate and make recommendations regarding the Center’s policies, programs and services. The committee also provides advice on La Casa’s support resources, including budget, personnel and facilities.

The hope is that La Casa Cultural Latina will continue to prosper as a thriving part of the campus community—and that future Latinx students will continue to benefit from the many programs created by their predecessors, while also paying it forward through community efforts like the Center’s Peer Retention Program and its Pen Pal mentorship initiative with local elementary school students. With all of these accomplishments and offerings to share, Ortega is thrilled to welcome back generations of Latinx alumni to La Casa in April 2024.

“I want everyone to know we are celebrating 50 years,” Ortega says. “Whether you have been living under a rock [or] whether you have never set foot in La Casa, I want you to know it’s our 50th anniversary.” She adds, “I hope when [our alumni] see that we are celebrating 50 years, they [will] realize that this is 50 years of history on this campus. Really ugly history and really beautiful history. History of those who came before us and how they paved the way. And a reminder that we are not done.”