The first time Estevan Torres walked into the Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, or La Casita, it felt just like his grandmother’s home.
The wall color, arrangement of furniture and welcoming atmosphere all felt familiar to the then-freshman student, Torres said.
“The only thing that was missing was a plate of beans and rice,” he said.
La Casita became his refuge, a place to get away from the bustle of campus. He started attending Bible study meetings at the house each Tuesday or slipping away between classes to nap in the building’s library.
A few weeks ago, Torres, a UF alumni, drove by the empty lot where La Casita used to be. He wasn’t sure what he was seeing — until it clicked.
Hundreds of Hispanic and black alumni will return to Gainesville this weekend and next for Homecoming. Traditionally, the reunions were held in La Casita or the Institute of Black Culture. Now only dirt lots remain, the houses demolished in late August.
Torres said alumni will be excited for the future of the houses, but might become emotional.
“I passed by the house, and I wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “I hope they’re all ready for it.”
Both of the old buildings, wooden houses set up on West University Avenue, were closed in January for planned demolition. Over the Summer, controversy about whether the two buildings would be rebuilt as one unified center sparked protests. In July, Multicultural and Diversity Affairs announced the buildings would remain separate.
MCDA recently began holding a series of seven listening sessions to get student input.
Will Atkins, the executive director of MCDA, said the rebuilding project will cost $6.3 million.
Display boards are currently in the MCDA office for people to give feedback on the kinds of spaces they want in the new institutes, Atkins said.
“There’s lots of positivity moving forward with the project,” Atkins said. “We are doing our best to make sure multiple voices are being heard.”
After spending nearly her whole academic life in a private, predominantly white school, Tricia Tibby-Edmonds felt like a dot. She wanted to go to a black school.
She had her eyes set on Florida A&M in Tallahassee, but her mother, a Jamaican immigrant, refused.
“You’re not going to go to a black school, you’re going to go to a white school,” she said.
Today, Tibby-Edmonds, 46, said she’s glad she went to UF, even if she was at a predominantly white school. Even if on her first night in Gainesville, walking to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts with friends, a man shouted the N-word at her out of his car.
While Tibby-Edmonds was a student, she became treasurer of the UF Black Student Union, which would have meetings in the Institute of Black Culture even if space in the Reitz Union was available. The stairs were squeaky, and people had to sit on the floor, but Tibby-Edmonds said nobody minded.
“I am pretty sure whoever was the consulting team who thought this was the best step, whoever the eyes were, they didn’t look like the people who the building belonged to,” she said. “At all.”
When Tibby-Edmonds, who graduated in 1994, returned for football games with her kids, they always took photos outside the IBC.
It upset her to see the historic IBC building torn down instead of refurbished, like similar old houses in Savannah, Georgia.
She said the history of the building was important and valuable.
The IBC was gained after students conducted sit-ins and protests in the office of former UF President Stephen C. O’Connell on a day known as Black Thursday. Nearly 100 students withdrew from the school to protest.
“All the great buildings, that’s what’s done, you restore them,” she said. “Because they have history behind them. And I just feel like it’s a misstep, it is.”
Although this wasn’t the first year the Association of Hispanic Alumni or the Association of Black Alumni didn’t have their Homecoming events in the institutes, it was the first year the buildings weren’t standing.
Kimberly Lopez, the president of the Association of Hispanic Alumni, said returning alumni didn’t mention or mind the switch. At their Homecoming weekend they listened to a presentation on the construction progress from Gabe Lara, the associate director of Hispanic-Latino Affairs, to clear up any misconceptions on the rebuilding.
“I think there’s a way to achieve a new building while still having the same sense of history and pride that many feel with the old institute,” Lopez said.
Jacynta Brewton, the president of the Association of Black Alumni, said alumni would get the chance to comment on proposed designs for the Institute of Black Culture.
Brewton said the initial process wasn’t as inclusive as it could have been. Now, as a member of the institute’s project committee, Brewton said the process will be more open.
“I don’t know that everyone was fully aware of all the facts,” Brewton said.
As a student at UF in 2001, Brewton said she didn’t use the IBC often but was glad to know it was there.
“Most important to me was the IBC existed,” the 34-year-old said. “If I needed a space, I had a space.”
Amelia Nichols Alava, a UF alumni who attended in 1992 and current UF doctoral student, said she still feels deeply connected to The Gator Nation.
She said in 1992, there weren’t other spaces around town for Hispanic students to go — there was only La Casita. It’s where she and other students in the Hispanic Student Association would meet, talk or plan to go dancing.
“I was really sad to hear it was torn down,” the 43-year-old said. “As a freshman it was nice to meet other students with kind of the same background.”
She said the warmth she felt from La Casita was in part because it was a house. Though she understands necessity for disability access, she said if it becomes a modern building, it could lose the homey feeling it used to have.
“Even if they’re going into a new building, I hope it still has the heart and soul that it had when it was a house,” she said.