This story by Abigail Charpentier originally appeared in the Daily Collegian.
Since its founding in 2011, Latinos Unidos (LU) has been uniting Latino students on campus and educating community members on Latino culture and heritage.
With 111 members on Campus Pulse and 20-30 weekly meeting attendees, the organization throws large events such as Noche Latina and Miss Latinos Unidos, and has weekly general body meetings. They also have a dance team, Cayena, that performs bachata, merengue, salsa, palos and reggaeton.
“Our main goal is to unite as many Latinos on campus as we can,” Latinos Unidos president Maria Sucher said.
Sucher also said LU tries to “educate anyone who’s interested. So, if anyone is interested in our language, our food, dance, culture, attire — if they have any interest at all — we welcome them in and we’ll teach and show them whatever we can.”
According to the Latinos Unidos Campus Pulse page, “Latinos Unidos was established at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the Spring of 2011 by members of the previous existing Latino/Hispanic groups, Boricuas Unidos and CASA Dominicana, because of the need to serve the larger Latino/Hispanic community within the student body. Its purpose is to provide a student organization for all students interested in Latino/Hispanic heritage.”
“There was a whole group of people who didn’t fit into either category, and so the two groups united in 2011 to create Latinos Unidos where it would be a home for not just Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, but any country [in] Latin America,” Sucher explained.
Members of LU are currently preparing for HASA/CASA, their largest event of the year. The event is cohosted by the Haitian American Student Association and celebrates Haitian and Dominican culture at UMass.
“It’s about the conflict of Haiti and DR in real life, but how here on campus we try to be as unified as possible. So, we show a lot of the similarities and differences between the countries with song, dance, music and food,” Sucher said.
Last year, roughly 800 students attended the event and heard live music, watched dance performances and ate food. Although the theme changes from year to year, the attire usually consists of all-white outfits, Sucher explained.
This year, HASA/CASA will be held on March 24 and presale tickets will be available March 9 at midnight.
The organization hosts other large events like Noche Latina and Miss Latinos Unidos in the fall semesters. Last year’s Noche Latina theme was “Batalla Del Ritmo,” where people explored the differences between reggaeton and dembow music. Musicians from around the state performed and a dance social followed.
Miss Latinos Unidos is pageant where participants each chose a country to represent. For the first time this year, males and females could both participate, but only females auditioned. Contestants compete in a talent portion where they showcase something special about themselves and the country they represent, as well as a question portion where contestants are in formal wear and must answer a question about a controversial topic, such as mental health and Hurricane Maria.
In the first year, nine countries were represented and in the second year, eight countries were represented. Seven countries and territories were represented in the most recent pageant, including Cuba, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Puerto Rico.
“I think the one that brings the most culture to campus and gives out the most information is Miss LU,” Sucher said. “I think it’s our biggest event and we highlight the most amount of countries in one show. There’s a lot of components to it, including dance, music, art, and we get to see the perspectives from a lot of different people, which I really like. So, I think that’s probably my favorite event of the big ones.”
LU meets on a weekly basis in the Latinx American Cultural Center in Hampden Commons in Southwest Residential Area. Meetings typically last an hour on Mondays, starting at 8 p.m.
General body meetings usually start off with an icebreaker activity and a check-in, where people can share the highs and lows of their week before starting an activity. Activities vary, ranging from cooking demonstrations to karaoke nights to game nights. In an upcoming meeting, attendees will be painting.
A popular meeting activity are “real talks,” where the group discusses controversial subjects. For Black History Month, a real talk was held about what it means to be Afro-Latino and how people feel on the topic.
Sucher explained, “It’s a free, open space for people to chat about how they feel about the topic, if they identify with AfroLatino or not and that kind of thing.”
Other social events include “Dominoes & Domino’s,” where students learn bachata steps while playing dominoes and eating Domino’s pizza, and “Chips and Salsa,” where students learn Salsa steps and eat chips and salsa.
LU is currently working on collaboration with the Stonewall Center about LGBTQIA+ and Latino communities, as well as a karaoke event with an acapella group. Previous collaborations have included a conversation about mental health and Latino communities with the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, socials with Greek life and a Think Pink event for breast cancer awareness.
“We don’t actually have enough time to do all the things we want to do…there’s just not enough weeks in the semester to plan everything,” Sucher said. “We have so many things we want to do and so many people to collaborate with and we just don’t have enough time to do it.”
LU occasionally works with people outside of UMass. Last year, a teacher from Lawrence, Mass., who primarily taught students of Dominican descent reached out to LU and asked for a tour of UMass. Members of LU spent the day with the students, giving them a tour, eating lunch and a holding panel of current Latino students. They discussed financial aid, getting accepted into college, accessibility and how they are involved on campus.
Sucher is a hospitality and tourism management and marketing senior who joined LU her freshman year. She was the treasurer of a group similar to LU at her high school and came to UMass looking for a cultural organization to join. After attending a barbecue her freshman year, she felt very welcomed and joined the dance team, Cayena.
After serving as treasurer for two years, Sucher was the registered student organization (RSO) liaison for a semester before being elected president of the organization.
As president, she sets the agenda for executive board meetings, meets with LU’s advisor, works with the event coordinator to submit contracts, serves as a liaison between LU and other campus organizations and agencies and holds signature responsibility.
One of the first things Sucher did as president was edit and rewrite the Constitution. Sucher took out parts of the Constitution she felt weren’t pertinent to the group and wrote specific responsibilities for each of the 11 executive board positions.
Astrid Esquilin Nieves, a senior linguistics and French double major, serves as LU’s event coordinator. Nieves joined the first semester of her freshman year after attending a Salsa event at the recreation center.
“I was the only person of color on my floor and I felt very alone…not that I didn’t like the people on my floor, but I was just missing something else,” she said.
Nieves was a dance coordinator for LU before becoming an event coordinator her junior year.
“Being able to produce amazing events that people generally like, that’s my favorite part,” she said.
Leonor Ayala-Sanchez, a junior management major, met Nieves during New Student Orientation.
“Meeting [Nieves] and knowing that I was one of the few minority women at my NSO training was really different and of course, me going into a new place, [I] was looking for someone who could share very similar experiences as me, maybe looks like me, talks like me…So, just meeting her through that, she was one of the people who introduced me to LU.”
Ayala-Sanchez joined the dance team and decided to run for an executive board position after working “behind the scenes.” She now serves as one of the public relations coordinators for LU and is training to be the next event coordinator.
“This club has given me opportunities to meet and connect with a lot of people and just network…we can benefit and find ways to help each other for the proper cause of just being a genuine person and help out,” Ayala-Sanchez said.
Sucher reiterated that LU was very inclusive. “We don’t want to turn anyone away, we don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t join our group if they don’t feel that they are a Latino. We just want to welcome everyone, and anyone who wants to join can join. We like to create a family atmosphere where people get to know each other and hang out with each other afterward.”