Students Seek To Make LACLAS A Department

The student organization Qomunidad hosted a “Headwear Across Cultures and Religions” event. Among their focus on intersectionality and uplifting Latinx voices on campus is their advocating for the Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies (LACLAS) program to become a department.
The student organization Qomunidad hosted a “Headwear Across Cultures and Religions” event. Among their focus on intersectionality and uplifting Latinx voices on campus is their advocating for the Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies (LACLAS) program to become a department.

On March 13, the LGBTQ+ and Latinx club on campus, Qomunidad, hosted a Headwear Across Cultures and Religions event in the Sojourner Truth Library. The event included several presentations from members of organizations on campus including the Fahari Libertad, Black Student Union and the New Paltz Drag Collective, who discussed the role hair and headwear plays for cultural identities. In addition to the presentations, students held a Cafecito Con Pan fundraising sale, where they sold coffees and conchas to support the efforts of Qomunidad to turn the Latin American, Caribbean and Latinx Studies (LACLAS) program into an academic department. 

The title of Qomunidad comes from “comunidad” — the Spanish word for community. Club founders replaced the first letter with a “q” to emphasize the group as an intersectional space on campus that serves the LGBTQ+ Latinx community. The group hopes to turn LACLAS into a department and has a petition with over 300 signatures to do so. 

 LACLAS is an interdisciplinary program that offers a major and a minor. Every class that teaches about the Latin American, Caribbean and the Latinx experience in a national or global context is part of the program. LACLAS classes are offered across 14 departments, including Black Studies, English and Theater Arts. “It’s a quite flexible program because you can move through disciplines,” said Associate Professor of Spanish and LACLAS Director César Barros.

According to Barros, SUNY New Paltz is one of the few state University Colleges that offers a LACLAS major and minor. While SUNY Albany and Binghamton are state University Centers that offer LACLAS adjacent majors, only the former has a LACLAS adjacent department. Out of the University Colleges, only SUNY Oneonta, Plattsburg and Purchase offer a major in LACLAS studies like SUNY New Paltz. “We are one of the few in the whole of SUNYs that do this,” said Barros.

The Provost Office oversees the school’s programs and departments, and according to the University Spokesperson Andrew Bruso, the Office “has not received outreach from students or organizations with specific questions related to support for Latinx voices on campus,” nor has a Qomunidad member reached out to the office about LACLAS becoming a department.

Faculty has not asked to turn LACLAS into a department — the current effort is student-led. “As faculty, we haven’t asked to be a department. So, I can’t say the university has blocked the possibility of being a department,” said Barros. According to him, there is not much “institutional memory” of a push to turn LACLAS into a department, but there may have been a faculty attempt to do so in the past. “I can’t say for certain that this happened, but by asking older colleagues, there was a push long time ago to make LACLAS into a department, and it didn’t work,” Barros said.  

“Students have been super interested in the idea of making the program a department. It’s their lead, and I support their efforts — becoming a department is a very valid demand,” he said. 

LACLAS as a department would be “a more established structure” for the interdisciplinary program and provide them with department space. He referenced his office space, “This is Latin American Studies. It’s my office. When I finish being the director, it’s going to be somebody else’s office. There is no space, for instance,” said Barros.

While faculty has not reached out to administration, according to Spokesperson Bruso, Student Association Vice President Kerry Hernandez inquired about LACLAS becoming a department at a recent meeting between campus leadership and student government. Bruso said, “it was a productive initial conversation,” but no decisions have been made — although he expects discussions to continue.

At the meeting with student government and campus administration, Bruso said they discussed the review process for a program becoming a department, which includes looking at interest from the student body and faculty, academic content and the impact the department would have. “This review process is the same for any new program or department,” said Bruso. 

LACLAS currently does not have its own full-time faculty. This means that faculty who teach program courses are affiliated with the program, but no one works just for LACLAS. “Faculty give their time to do this, but their primary obligation is in their departments,” said Barros. 

According to third year LACLAS and communications double major Daniel Cadena, professors are faced with the dilemma of having to choose between teaching LACLAS classes or programs in their department. “Half of our LACLAS professors work in the Spanish division of the Language, Literatures and Cultures. If I’m a professor and I work for the Spanish program, they get in between this limbo of ‘do I teach a Spanish class, or do I teach LACLAS?’”

Barros said that one tenure line, full-time faculty and LACLAS having its own space “would make a big difference.”

“Our idea is to keep being an interdisciplinary program. The idea that students can take classes in all those departments is beautiful. At the same time, having at least one position or two positions that could teach those classes and more would make the major much more comprehensive and attractive and visible to our students,” he said.  

Cadena and the LACLAS initiative “Todes por LACLAS,” which translates to “Everyone for LACLAS,” started the petition to turn the program into a department. “This school has its own shortcomings in terms of financial flexibility. But our faculty in LACLAS has been advocating for more funding and resources for years, and the administration is not giving it to them,” he said.

“They say it’s because ‘they need more people. There’s not enough funding. There’s not enough students.’ It’s always a different reason and a lot of this can be solved just by making us department.” 

“This school has turned to pandering more towards attracting students, instead of supporting the students that are already here,” said Cadena, who also emphasized the importance of LACLAS courses. “Without studying Latin American and Caribbean people in the U.S. and in the greater world, how are we going to understand our own growing student body?”

“There’s so many Latin American people on this campus, so many Caribbean people on this campus. Our culture affects this campus through events hosted by the Latin American and Caribbean clubs,” he said.

Another objective Qomunidad members expressed is for SUNY New Paltz to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). As a part of a U.S. Department of Education initiative, HSIs are institutions of higher education that have at least a 25% Hispanic population of full-time undergraduate students enrolled. According to University Spokesperson Bruso, “The criteria include more than just the percentage of Hispanic representation,” and that it requires “campuses to intentionally plan infrastructure to ensure consistent Hispanic retention and success over time, or risk losing the HSI designation.” If an institution meets the HSI eligibility requirements, it receives grants from the federal government for programs and resources that support the Hispanic student population. The SUNY New Paltz website states that 22% of degree-seeking undergraduate students identify as Latino. “If we reach the 25% threshold, then it will be a question of if the university wants to be a HSI or not,” said Barros.  

According to second-year English, Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and LACLAS triple major and Qomunidad co-president Lukas Cortes, the administration does not want to be a HSI. Cortes said, “They don’t want to do that because they will get more funds, but they will have to give those funds to their Hispanic students, which means that they would have more rights.” 

“They want to silence us. They don’t want to help us,” they said. 

Spokesperson Bruso said, “Campus leadership believes that HSI status will greatly benefit the institution and will work toward attaining and sustaining all eligibility and sustainability criteria as part of our strategic goals.” 

For Cadena, LACLAS being a department and the university receiving federal funds as a HSI are tied together. “Having a LACLAS department would attract more Latinx and Caribbean people to this campus,” he said. “We could use that money to better support ourselves, and the administration just doesn’t see how it would play into itself.”

“If we were to get more privileged people on campus talking about the issue, I think we can get the ball rolling, but people don’t always want to hear Hispanic voices, especially on a topic like this,” said first-year international relations major and Qomunidad vice president Inka Urra Bodnar. “American culture is very much about suppressing Latinx voices, making sure we don’t speak Spanish — things like that.”

Cortes expressed frustration with administration’s past treatment of its Hispanic students and referenced when administration wanted to close El Museo Escolar — a museum located in the Student Union Building dedicated to Latin and Caribbean culture — but did not due to swift backlash from the campus community. “They have threatened us in the past — the whole thing that happened with El Museo.” According to Spokesperson Bruso, the campus has “significant space constraints’’ and “it is not unusual for the administration to check in with the occupants of different rooms if they appear to be unused or neglected for extended periods of time.” He said, “El Museo “remains in use by the Caribbean Latin Coalition student organization.”

Although faculty has not made a formal request to be a department, Barros said “there are allocation of resources in this university — priorities. This is a very important program for many, many students. The fact that it is program, and the fact that our headcount in terms of majors is not high because we are small prevents us from growing.” 

He emphasized that an investment into LACLAS must be made for the program to grow and serve the university’s Latinx population. “If you think that your programs are important, and at the same time they are small, there needs to be the willingness to support those programs for them to grow,” he said. “If support comes from major headcount, the bigger programs are going to continue growing, the smaller programs are going to stay small or get smaller and smaller.”

Qomunidad continues to hold intersectional events on campus and make efforts for LACLAS to become a department. “They have this commitment to something that’s going to stay. They want to make sure that this program gets what it deserves. I’m very happy for their push,” Barros said. “It is hard to grab that interest when you’re small, and so we need to make a leap. We’re already one of the few programs at SUNY. We are one of the best programs at SUNY. We have amazing faculty, an amazing program.” 

“It’s a question of investment. When you see some potential in something, you must be willing to invest.”

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About Lilly Sabella 58 Articles
Lilly Sabella is a third-year student from Queens, NY. This is her first semester as Features Editor and her fifth semester on The Oracle. Previously, she served as News Editor. You can reach her by emailing sabellal1@newpaltz.edu and read more of her writing on Substack at barbierot.substack.com.

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