We have come a long way, but there is still work to be done

Lucia Rios and Jennifer Hernández

Vista hosted a panel of six alumna on Oct. 28 to reflect on their experiences of hunger striking in protest against the College’s lack of a Latina/o studies program (LATS). These hunger strikes are a major reason why we are able to study the history of our communities, but other College community members may be unaware of their significance. Though they weren’t the only participants, we wanted to highlight these women’s experiences and their struggle to create a more inclusive curriculum at the College. By hosting this panel, we hoped that we would learn from their experiences, pass down institutional memory, and use their knowledge moving forward.

As we continue advocating for an inclusive liberal arts education, we understand that there is still work to be done. Latine/x and other students of color shouldn’t be an afterthought when creating curricula. Instead, our histories and experiences should be intentionally embedded into our studies to offer an inclusive and holistic education — one that reflects the population of the entire College, not just white students. In addition, Latine/x professors and faculty need to feel supported in their professional development. We cannot maintain and grow strong ethnic studies programs without increasing the number of tenured professors of color at the College.

Historical context of the LATS panel

In 1993, 24 students participated in a four-and-a-half-day hunger strike that played a significant role in founding the College’s Latino/a studies program. At the time, Vista members and the broader population of students of color saw a rise in their presence at the College, but that was not met with a rise in resources or support. As a result, Latine/x and other students of color were dropping out in large numbers. Although participants in the 1993 strike received pushback from the broader College community, groups like the Queer Student Union, the Williams College Jewish Association, Black Student Union, and Asian American Students in Action stood in solidarity. At the end of the 1993 hunger strike, students and the administration came to an agreement, with the College promising that it would make an effort to create a Latine/x studies program — a promise that would be fulfilled years later in 2004.

What has changed versus what has stayed the same

Since 2004, the LATS department has been offering several courses on our identity, history, culture, and struggle as Latine/x people living in the United States. As students who have taken various LATS courses, we have seen our community represented in the course material, which has shaped our academic and personal experiences while attending a predominantly white institution.

Since the establishment of the program, the Latine/x community has experienced significant changes on a national level related to cultural visibility, politics, identity, and intersectionality, which we see reflected in many of our LATS courses. Thankfully, the department has been able to incorporate contemporary events and themes affecting us in real time, which has been key to maintaining such a successful program. In 2019, the department celebrated its Quinceñera (15-year anniversary), and we hope that the department will continue to celebrate anniversaries for years to come.

However, the College has not done enough to support professors of color and create a sense of belonging within the Williamstown community. There is a significant lack of tenured faculty within the LATS department, which makes it difficult for students to form long-term relationships with professors and receive sustained mentorship when professors are expected to leave after two years. For these professors, the lack of tenure means that there is no sense of permanency, which makes the College a temporary place they move through before their next academic position. Moving forward, we ask that the College seriously commit to hiring more LATS faculty in tenure-track positions as the population of Latine/x students continues to grow.

In addition, the curriculum and courses within the LATS department — and affiliated courses in the Spanish department — need to better reflect the growing diverse experiences of Latine/x people outside of what is currently the default: the Mexican and Puerto Rican diaspora. While Mexican and Puerto Rican Americans have made up a significant part of our history in the United States, the population of our campus community is rapidly changing and evolving. The expectations we have for diversity and inclusion should grow and change alongside the community. We call on the department to increase its offerings that teach the histories and experiences of communities including Afro-Latine/x, Indigenous, Caribbean, Central American, and South American beyond passing mentions in courses focused on Mexico and Puerto Rico. Instead, there needs to be an intentional centering of these communities and how their experiences in the United States are shaped by differing economic, racial, political, and social dynamics. As the Latine/x community on campus becomes more diverse, the curriculum and faculty must expand to include their experiences.

Hopes for the future

Identity is intersectional, and our ethnic studies programs should reflect that. We cannot talk about the Zoot Suit riots without including the influence of Black American fashion and social movements. We cannot speak of the issues of migrant workers without mentioning the contributions of Filipino/x workers in labor rights movements. Much of the struggle for Latine/x rights has relied on previous work from other communities of color, and our ethnic studies courses need to reflect that. At the same time, there also needs to be recognition of the growing intersectionality within our communities.

Indigenous studies must focus on issues that not only affect Indigenous communities in the United States but also in the broader areas of North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean. To deny students a curriculum that is all-inclusive is a disservice to our communities. We cannot claim the spot of being the No. 1 liberal arts institution while our administration continues to refuse the inclusion of all these communities.

We also call on the College to work towards establishing an Asian American studies program. Asian American students have the right to learn about their history and community before graduating from the College. Having a program to study your identity and the nuances that come with it should be a right, not a privilege, and for so long it has been treated as the latter. Just because the College’s ethnic studies programs have been catalyzed by strikes and occupations in the past does not mean that should be the norm or precedent. When people were fighting for their ethnic studies programs, they were fighting for all programs. In refusing this program to its students, the College becomes a perpetrator in the overt racism and bias that it claim so often to fight against. Rather than just making vague statements about how much the College values diversity, we need resources and action.

Lucia Rios ’24 is an American studies major from Richmond, Calif., and Jennifer Hernández ’23 is an economics major from Alexandria, Va.