Students’ vision for the future of El Centro

Students and faculty gather in Martin Hall for the re-opening of El Centro on April 16. Graduate student Samuel Morales-Gonzalez led the effort to revive El Centro, a place where people who identify as Latinx and allies can gather.

Mike Brown

El Centro’s revival was not only a celebration of the reopening of an affinity space for Latinx students, but a discussion about how students and members of the Iowa State community vision El Centro continuing to grow and evolve moving forward.

El Centro has existed in one form or another on Iowa State’s campus since 1992, when it began as the Hispanic American Resource Center (HARC), located in Beardshear.

HARC was eventually moved to Student Services, but continued to serve its purpose of giving Latinx student organizations a meeting place, providing Latinx students a place to socialize, and assisting Latinx students in finding student groups and resources on campus that would benefit them.

Eventually being named El Centro, the space was moved to Helser Hall, before moving to its current location of Martin Hall. Over time, it’s purpose evolved into a meeting space for Latinx student groups, but as groups outgrew the space, El Centro was converted into storage.

Presently, these student groups have been provided new storage space, and El Centro, is returning as an affinity space, or an identity based space where students who share a cultural background can make friends and foster new relationships.

Samuel Morales-Gonzalez, a graduate student studying in student affairs, graduate hall director, and leader of the El Centro shared his goal for the space moving forward after he graduates during a speech given at the revival event on April 16.

“This is only the beginning. This is for the students, by the students,” Morales-Gonzalez said. “I’m really hoping to have someone step up and continue this legacy.”

Liz Mendez-Shannon, diversity and inclusion project director in Hispanic/Latinx Affairs at Iowa State, and early supporter of the El Centro revival spoke about the early goals of El Centro.

“The goal is for [El Centro] to be student led and student run, to organize the space so that other student organizations can meet there to utilize the new space as a way to have a community, and to feel more welcomed and have the space to organize,” Mendez-Shannon said.

Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Reginald Stewart, spoke to the importance of a space like El Centro to campus climate.

“Climate is driven by student engagement and this is a very real manifestation of that,” Stewart said. “I think it’s quite joyous to be perfectly honest.”

Spanish professor and department chair of world languages and cultures, Chad Gasta, spoke to the importance of having a physical space for Latinx students at Iowa State.

“In a lot of ways, a physical space gives an opportunity to connect people and in this case it’s not just students and faculty or staff, but perhaps the community in the long term,” Gasta said.

Gasta spoke to the importance a physical space brings to visibility and outreach for Latinx students on campus. He said it allows him and his department to be able to inform students who have a cultural or lingual connection to the space.

Gasta said it allows students opportunities to connect and collaborate with other students or student organizations they may not have otherwise become aware of.

At the reopening of El Centro, attendees were given forms to fill out, allowing them to give input on how they believe El Centro can continue to evolve as a space for Latinx students. The form asked participants what they feel should be present in the space, how the space should be used, and what they would like to see changed about the space moving forward.

Students, faculty, and staff who attended discussed things such as visibility and a larger space as things they would like to see develop from El Centro in the future.

Vanessa Espinoza, a graduate student in the student affairs program, spoke about the importance of representation through a space like El Centro.

“It’s important to be represented, and find that space where you are able to be with your community,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza said that a potential change she would like to see made to El Centro in the future would be a name change.

“I would like for El Centro to be named something else, something that honors our community,” Espinoza said “Perhaps somebody that has contributed a lot that is from the Latinx community, for example Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, there are definitely a lot of Latinx folks that have changed the United States and done some pretty amazing things, and I would like them to be honored in our center.”

Patricia Mendez, senior in animal science, believes that El Centro has a strong starting point, but wants to see a larger space for El Centro going forward, allowing larger number of students to gather in the space.

Elizabeth Martinez-Podolsky, a multicultural liaison officer in the college of agriculture and life sciences, spoke about her hopes for El Centro moving forward.

“Our student’s need a place to know that it’s theirs to go study, congregate, or eat together or just connect with a peer. It needs to feel accessible,” Martinez-Podolsky said.

The issue of accessibility of El Centro due to its location in Martin Hall was also discussed by Mendez, due to the fact that residence halls have limited accessibility.

Mendez also spoke about possible benefits that can come from moving El Centro moving out of a residence hall going forward.

“[Moving] would allow for students to even gather on weekdays and holidays because I know a lot of our international students that are Latino, they can’t really go back home during breaks so it’s another space where they can just get together and do something during the holidays so they’re not alone,” Mendez said.

Hugo Meza, a senior in industrial engineering, wants to see more visibility and promotion of El Centro on campus, so more students can become aware of the space and start utilizing it.

Araceli Lopez, a junior in political science, spoke about inclusivity of all Latinx cultures with El Centro and how she wants Latinx culture to be represented in El Centro going forward.

“I don’t want [people] to think just Mexico or just Mexicans. I want them to think about all Latinos, and to make sure that when you advertise it’s not specific to just Mexican culture and Mexican traditions, but all our Latin communities and brothers and sisters and all their traditions and cultures,” Lopez said.

Maricela Real, a junior in kinesiology and health and co-president of Latinx Student Initiatives (LSI), wants the space’s purpose to be made clear to students so they can know what resources are available to them. Options for the kinds of services that El Centro could offer going forward that Real spoke about included a meeting place for student organization, a study space for Latinx students, and a social space for Latinx students.

Lopez also spoke about El Centro’s revival and new beginning and what it meant for her.

“It’s a start, and it’s a really hopeful start,” Lopez said.

Editor’s Note: Photo captions have been updated to accurately reflect that Samuel Morales-Gonzalez was a leader in the effort to revive El Centro, an existing space, and not the founder.