Students and alumni share stories of Latinx activism and evolution at Yale

A meet-and-greet at La Casa Cultural Center in honor of “50 Years of Latinos at Yale” on April 12 brought together students and alumni from across the generations to share experiences and reminisce about the history and evolution of Latinos at Yale.

“There was an entire legacy that came before us,” said Emily Almendarez ’20 B.A., co-moderator of  Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) de Yale, which was founded 50 years ago by student activists on campus. “The energy is palpable — I’m excited to hear their stories.”

“When I was touring Yale, La Casa was one of the main reasons I said ‘yes,’” said Cinthia Zavala Ramos ’21 B.A., MEChA’s other co-moderator. “I’m from the South, and this is a place to explore Latino values.” 

Almendarez calls La Casa — a cozy townhouse space on Crown Street where Latinx student organizations hold meetings and events — a “home base.” “I come here to study and organize, it has literally become a home,” she said.

When Manuel Del Valle ’74 J.D. came to Yale, he was one of just a few people of color in his class. When he wasn’t studying, he said, he spent his time “organizing undergrads on campus.” He also taught a course at Yale on the history of the politics of Puerto Rico, a course he developed while at Princeton, and was active in helping to establish La Casa, staging protests with other students outside of the Yale Club of New York City and meeting with then-President Kingman Brewster.

“We spent years opening doors,” said Del Valle, a chief administrative law judge in Puerto Rico, professor at the Interamerican Law School, and poet. He remembers how he and other Puerto Rican Yale students would seek out “survival food” — authentic Puerto Rican food from New Haven restaurants. He’s since returned to Yale to lecture, and attend reunions, and said the poetry he writes had its origins when he was a teenager at Yale.

Rodolfo Alvarez returned to Yale for the 50th celebration as a guest speaker along with his daughter, Anica Alvarez Nishio ’88 B.A., secretary of the Yale Club of London. Alvarez was Yale’s first Chicano faculty member in 1966, and said there were just three Chicano students his first year of teaching. But that number doubled each year, and Alvarez said: “By the time I left, there were around 130 Chicano students.” Alvarez was a sociology professor at Yale — he left for UCLA in 1972, where he continues to teach — and said, “It is amazing how Yale has evolved physically and conceptually.” He discussed the importance of representation, having faculty members who reflect Latinx students. “It’s essential,” Alvarez said. “Unless Latino students can see people like themselves, they won’t be as motivated and comfortable.”

And while Alvarez acknowledges that student activism was a driving force in the 1960s and 1970s on campus, he said it’s no less relevant today. “It’s new for each generation, and each generation has to seek betterment,” he said. “You can’t just accept what’s being handed down to you.”