‘You have a place’: Latinx and Native American students celebrate 50 years of the Latino Native American Cultural Center

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The Latino Native American Cultural Center is seen at 308 Melrose Ave. in Iowa City, IA. Established in 1971, the center celebrates their 50th anniversary this year. (Kate Heston/The Daily Iowan)
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By Alexandra Skores

When Isabela Flores transferred to the University of Iowa in fall 2015, she felt lost and challenged by the thought of making it through college on her own. 

The first of her mother’s children to attend college, Flores had toggled between different schools and spaces she felt comfortable in. 

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“I couldn’t quit school,” Flores said. “I was going to make it work here.” 

Flores’ college experience changed after one quick Google search that led to a visit to the Latino Native American Cultural Center.

Walking into 308 Melrose Ave., she was greeted by a packed two-story house with students of many different identities. All it took for her to get involved was one person walking up to her and asking kindly, “Hi, what’s your name?” 

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After that, Flores would return to the LNACC for years. It became a central hub to express her own identity and pay it forward by introducing herself to other students who would walk through the door.

Flores is not alone in her story of finding a home away from home at the center. Since 1971, the space has provided students of Latinx and Native American identities a safe space to celebrate their identities. 

A home is formed

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More than 50 years ago, three University of Iowa students noticed a lack of people on campus with identities like their own. Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, Antonio Zavala, and Ruth Pushetonequa came together and traveled across Illinois and Iowa, in hopes of bringing more Chicano and Indian American students to the university. 

For Barceló, the idea came to her as a UI graduate student in 1969. She was considering dropping out because she was one of few people who shared her identity and upbringing on campus. Her mother had sent her a care package of traditional Mexican treats like pan dulces and chorizo. She missed the food and people she saw daily at home. 

While sitting in the UI registrar’s office waiting to drop out of school, she spotted a brochure on the ground for the Educational Opportunities Program. 

“I thought to myself, ‘Why am I the only one?” Barceló said.

In her time at Iowa, Barceló had not met many other students of Latinx or Native American identities. This changed when she met Pushetonequa and Zavala.

Zavala said the three were radically influenced by civil rights leaders fighting injustices including the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez’s dedication to helping farm workers, and students at Columbia University igniting in protest against their administration. In a Daily Iowan article from 1971, Zavala and Pushetonequa hoped to establish a counterpart house to the Afro-American house that was created in 1968. The founders had hoped to show films on campus and bring theatrical groups that would display their cultures.

“When I got to the University of Iowa, I started looking for the few Mexicans that were around,” Zavala said.

One month, Zavala organized a party in his dorm for the then named, Chicano and Indian American Student Union, hoping to bring together people of similar identities. After getting everyone on board, the students applied for a formal chartered organization status on Nov. 6, 1970.

The goal was to preserve the heritage and identity of Chicano and Indian American students on campus. According to a Daily Iowan article from 1970, Zavala estimated there were 22 Chicano students and 14 Indian American students on campus at the time, and believed there were more. 

As the group continued to grow, in 1972 the UI would report the addition of more dormitory advisers from underrepresented backgrounds. According to a 1972 DI article, around 10 Black students, one Indian student, and one student with a disability were hired as dormitory advisers. 

The students would meet at 115 Clinton St., where the Spanish language department was located. By Oct. 4, 1973, they wanted their own formal house on campus. Under the administration of Willard ‘Sandy’ Boyd, UI officials granted the space of 308 Melrose Ave. to the students of the Chicano and Indian American Student Union on campus. The original Clinton Street building would later be torn down for new facilities at the UI. However, one piece of the original house would still follow the new building — a large wooden mantle from the old house. The mantle currently sits in a room on the second floor of the center, surrounded by rooms dedicated to affiliated student organizations with the LNACC. 

The center faces Melrose Ave. with a large walkway to a red-brick building resembling a typical family home. Inside, walls are painted a deep red, with chairs in almost every room. At the heart of the center is a kitchen with a fridge often described as “always being full.” 

Artwork and posters line the walls of both Latinx and Native American history, with a mural prominently placed in the main living room. The mural was created by artist Manuel Unzueta in 1974, however after many years of display, the mural experienced deterioration. It was later restored in 2001 by a local artist. However, the mural had lost the colors and original artist’s name. This sparked controversy among many students at the time.

In addition to the new space, UI administration and students of underrepresented backgrounds spoke often in the early years of the center to continue the momentum of bringing more students of color to campus. According to a 1973 DI article, 25 Chicano students met with then-Vice President for Student Services and Dean of Academic Affairs Philip Hubbard to request more out-of-state recruiting of students, use of the aid from the student support program, a Chicano faculty member, and a bilingual-bicultural UI Hospital and Clinics staff member to help with barriers faced.

Every Saturday, a group of students of Chicano and Indian American backgrounds would go to elementary schools such as West Liberty to help children that were experiencing language barriers in the classroom, according to a 1973 DI article. 

Recruitment of students with similar identities was key to continuing the momentum that they were building. Barceló would drive a university-provided van to areas in the Midwest to recruit students and the group would organize a “UIowa Chicano Conference” on April 26-27, 1974 entitled “Nuestra Realidad,” our reality. 

“I’m surprised we all graduated,” Barceló said. “We were so committed to making sure others followed us to the University of Iowa.”

Maintaining the momentum

As the years went on, the movement to bring more students of underrepresented identities to campus continued. 

During an event on Saturday, August 27, 1994, the original name of the center was changed to the Latino Native American Cultural Center (LNACC), reflecting the varied cultures, languages, or tribal affiliations of both cultures. 

“They called me before the change,” Barceló said. “ I just asked that the sign always says it was founded by Chicano and Meskwaki students.”

The Latino Native American Cultural Center exhibit is seen in the main library in Iowa City, IA. Established in 1971, the center celebrates their 50th anniversary this year. (Kate Heston/The Daily Iowan)

When Tracy Peterson, former UI college of engineering diversity and outreach programs director and citizen of the Diné (Navajo) Nation arrived at the UI in fall of 1993, he began to embrace the opportunities around him. He took part in different science programs as well as playing rugby. He would also find his wife during his time at Iowa, all while engaging with the LNACC.

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During his time, Tracy worked closely with the Native American Student Association, connecting with older students and students that came after him to maintain the sense of community, using the LNACC as a support space. 

In 1999, the Daily Iowan reported students would raise concerns over a UI proposal to move the cultural centers to a combined location in the Iowa Memorial Union. However, after student opposition, the centers remained at the spaces on the west side of campus.

“The LNACC was the integral connection to facilitating our connection,” Tracy said. “It was a place we could go to disconnect from the larger campus.”

When he began master’s at the UI, Tracy was offered a manager position at the LNACC, with hopes to bring more professional development opportunities to the position. Meanwhile, his daughter Adriana Nazhone Peterson would accompany her parents to the LNACC for dinners and other events. 

For Adriana, a citizen of both the Diné (Navajo) Nation and the Menominee tribe and a transfer student currently at Penn State University, the LNACC was one of the key reasons she attended the UI at the start of her undergraduate career in fall 2016. She recalls being one of the kids in the 90s and early 2000s running around the house with all the other kids of students. 

“This is a culture, and it will open its arms,” Adriana said. “It was a family environment…It’s a different type of environment.”

Adriana remembers the space quite differently from what it looks like today — she recalls the old red couches that used to sit in the LNACC living room and how much she used to love to sit around with friends in that room.

“The red couches were a true experience to take a nap on,” Adriana laughed.

In fall of 2019, Adriana, Tracy, and her mother Nicole would move out to Penn State University. 

Tcakimaweakewe Keely Driscoll was also one of the LNACC babies who could remember Thursdays in the house while her mother was getting her master’s through the UI. Driscoll is the current President of the Native American Student Association and a third-year student at the UI. 

She remembers some of her first Powwow experiences and witnessing firsthand the organization and feelings of togetherness. 

“I felt this was an event that valued and honored the culture,” Driscoll said. 

The UI Powwow was originally founded in 1990, with beautiful dances of Native American culture and different traditions. It was a time for celebration and honoring Native American identities and tradition. The UI Powwow has hosted more than 350 dancers, 18 drum groups, and 60 arts and crafts vendors. 

According to the Powwow website, the Chicano Indian American Student Union held smaller gatherings where Native American dance was one of many symposium topics. In the fall of 1989, the American Indian Student Association would be founded by Orrenzo Snyder (Diné), Larry Lasley (Meskwaki), Alex Walker (Meskwaki), Judy Morrison (Osage), and Stephanie Griffith (Dakota), all whom are now alumni of the UI. 

Organizers felt the separation from the Chicano Indian American Student Union was necessary to form a student group to better serve the needs of the Native American students on campus. By fall 2013, students decided to change the name to Native American Student Association (NASA) to better fit with the changing of times.

A land acknowledgement was created in Oct. 2020 to show respect towards Indigenous peoples and reiterate the UI is located on the homelands of tribal nations. It was formed as an expression of gratitude by the UI Native American Council and is supported by many at the UI. 

On April 17, the Native American Student Association hosted the first-ever virtual event entitled, “Honoring the Powwow at the University of Iowa.” Traditionally, they have hosted an in-person powwow since 1990. In 2020, the powwow was canceled due to COVID-19. For 2021, the 26th annual Powwow looked a little different, but still honored those who continued to support the community. 

Honoring 50 years of family

Items from the Univeristy of Iowa’s Special Collections and University Archives are seen as part of a collection of the Latino Native American Cultural Center. (Kate Heston/The Daily Iowan)

Just to the right of the Shambaugh Auditorium in the UI Main Library, one will find the LNACC exhibit, “Building Our Own Community: 50 Years of the Latino Native American Cultural Center, Founded by Chicano and American Indian Students in 1971.”

The museum, curated by Rachel Garza Carreón and Christopher Ortega, holds artwork, newspaper clippings, and items from the last 50 years. Along the beige walls include large quotes from the three founders and others that influenced the center’s creation. 

For Garza Carreón, coming to Iowa from San Antonio, Texas made her long for her Chicana-Tejana roots and miss her culture’s traditions and foods. The LNACC was where she was able to feel at home.

“You don’t have to explain yourself,” Garza Carreón said. “Whatever part of Latino and Native American culture you are — you have a place.”

An important piece of the history Garza Carreón said was the #DoesUIowaLoveMe movement in Feb. 2019, where students, staff, and faculty took to social media to share their concerns about discrimination on campus. Support came in the form of tweets, Instagram posts, and stories shared at a rally on the T. Anne Cleary walkway. 

Jessica Padilla, co-president of LANA3 – the Latino Native American Alumni Alliance said maintaining the involvement of students is important after they graduate and leave the UI. The pandemic has created opportunities to make connections virtually and attempt to think about how to continue to foster that sense of community.

“The older you get, the more responsibilities you get,” Padilla said. “We just hope to continue to be a resource for our students.”

The LNACC will celebrate throughout 2021 with various events and virtual programming pending the pandemic. 

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First-generation and Guatemalan American student McKrina Lopez serves as the student lead for the LNACC. Although the center’s ‘home away from home’ feelings have drastically changed due to COVID-19, she still feels like there are different avenues to maintain the connection with students and celebrate this year. 

“We are trying to keep relationships as best we can,” Lopez said. “…it has definitely been a challenge.”

Isabela Flores and Lopez continue to work hard with all of their peers to drive programming and the sense of community in a home that has such a wide range of history to it. They continue to uphold the values and recognize the importance of the center’s story from Barceló, Zavala, and Pushetonequa.

And even today, the originators feel a strong connection with the center.


“The cultural center,” Barceló said. “We affectionately called it, La Casa, our home.”

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