Arriving in Gainesville from Miami left me with a massive culture shock. As a freshman, I was overwhelmed by the feeling I had sacrificed so much of what defined my life until then. From a Cuban coffee in the morning to a shared “buen provecho” at dinner, a lifetime of Hispanic and Latinx traditions were lost to me. There was a comfortable sense of familiarity in hearing Spanish regularly and visiting my local panadería every other day — a routine I never realized the significance of until it was gone. In its place was a town that I first characterized as unfamiliar and unwelcoming.
Historically, UF has not always been welcoming to its minority students — but we’ve needed a safe space to freely express our respective heritages for some time now. Today, an on-campus Institute of Black Culture (IBC) and Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures (La Casita) are in the process of renovations and will be open to students within a few months. Once those ceremonial ribbons are cut, I look forward to the decades and centuries of happiness those buildings will bring to future minority students. Nevertheless, it’s still important that no one forgets the incredible effort it took to build those structures in the first place.
Though I arrived on campus feeling like a foreigner, I was lucky enough to find my cultural home, my familia, in the Hispanic Student Association. It was through my involvement that I learned of the extensive activism it took to bestow the foundation of these two institutes. In an interview with the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Dr. Fernando Fagundo described the circumstances that led to founding La Casita: “I came here in 1980 and this university was, a few years before that, was an all-white-male institution.” Though the law changed that soon after, Fagundo describes the way elements of that past were still present. “Hispanic students had to come and accommodate themselves and many of them didn’t feel welcome or at home in an institution with that kind of a past. So, it was the students who developed the idea and investigated the need for La Casita.”
Though some might call those issues of racism outdated, it was in the 2000s, during Gil Sanchez’s campaign in Student Government, that La Casita was vandalized with the phrase “No Spics for President” spray-painted onto its side.
It’s hard to put into words the immense amount of courage it takes to stand against a university as a minority, especially versus an institution with a precedent of oppression. La Casita stands as a source of comfort and home for Hispanic and Latinx Gators, a symbol of our community’s boundless potential. If ever you feel your voice as a minority isn’t heard, remember that students like you, with no small amount of grit, turned two small white-frame buildings into $8 million homes.
When I first arrived in Gainesville, I felt invisible. But I’m so grateful that I will have the opportunity to experience La Casita before my graduation, an area where I can definitively say I belong. I invite everyone to celebrate the legacy of those who came before us and take part in campus history by being present for the grand openings of the IBC (November 16th) and of La Casita (November 17th), two monumental markers of a hopeful future.
Matthew Diaz is the Hispanic and Latinx Caucus Leader in Student Government.