“Being Latino is pivotal to my time here at Vassar. I really couldn’t imagine being any other race.” Sergio Perez ’18 shared this thought to a small group of students who were helping prepare for MECHA’s latest event, Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, or MECHA, is a student organization that has brought a new home to many Latinx students on campus, including Perez.
This past weekend, MECHA volunteered at a community event with Hudson Valley Housing to celebrate the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos. At the community event, they decorated sugar skulls with children and offered face painting of the traditional Day of the Dead skull.
Jasmine Rodriguez ’19, a new member to MECHA, felt comfort in celebrating the holiday on campus. She recalled, “back home we would put out conchas (a Mexican pastry), make hot chocolate, and my mom would say a prayer. It feels nice to have a little bit of that here too.”
Bringing comfort to students is one of MECHA’s goals. Cristian Ventura ’17 stated, “We want to provide a safe space, somewhere people can come into and feel comfortable because they see people who look like them.”
“After my first semester,” Ventura continues, “that’s when I really felt like I didn’t have a place on this campus, especially since most of my student fellow group was white and I couldn’t relate to them.”
This organization wants to provide a place for Latinx students to feel like they belong, which is something a lot of these students struggle with. Rodriguez feels lucky to have found this space so early, and she shares, “I’ve found a place where people understand me when I talk about my stories and holidays, stuff people from other backgrounds wouldn’t necessarily relate to.”
Another goal of the group is bringing a voice to those who often go overlooked or underappreciated. Every year MECHA hosts two campus-workers’ appreciation dinners. At this event, they treat workers from the Deece, Retreat and the janitorial staff to food and entertainment. Ventura stated, “Ultimately, it’s just a really nice way to show that we acknowledge what they do for us.”
Another event that is approaching is the East Coast Chicana/o Student Form, where the various branches of MECHA on different campuses come together to celebrate the Latinx culture. Ventura explained, “We don’t usually get to go home for Thanksgiving, and so this conference started as a time to come together, celebrate, and hold important discussions.”
MECHA meetings always aim to continue these important discussions with topics such as colorism, racial ambiguity and identity. Another new member to MECHA Lisset Magdaleno ’19 shares, “Back home, I’d never jumped into my culture as much as I do here.”
Perez can relate to Magdaleno’s feelings. “When I came to Vassar, I never thought of my culture, never cared for it,” he reveals, “I came here ready to assimilate. Of course I never realized this, but looking back, that’s what I was doing.” For Ventura, discussing his identity and culture served another purpose. He stated, “Just having this opportunity to talk about my culture in a way I never would have has triggered an interest to do more, and that’s what kickstarted my decision to study Latin American and Latino Studies.”
Perez’s realization of his identity also influenced his career path in the STEM field, and he conveys this when he said, “Being in MECHA made me realize the importance in giving a voice to minorities, especially in STEM. This gives me motivation in a field that isn’t catered toward me.”
Academics, however, is only one part of the Vassar experience. The other part is figuring out how to make this new environment your home. Ventura shares his experience with this, “I’m from Northern Illinois, where most people are immigrants, and everybody is raised with the same culture and values. The switch from majority to minority was a learning experience because I only knew how to be Mexican in a Latino environment.”
MECHA has taken on the role of home for many students who relate to Ventura’s struggle. Rodriguez states, “I definitely would’ve been homesick without this organization on campus, but the first MECHA picnic I attended reminded me of family parties back home, and that feeling has helped a lot.”
Ventura expresses it in the simplest terms when he said, “MECHA is an extension on my own family.”
One of the last goals of this organization is to promote the importance of being Latinx in the Vassar community. When it comes to the importance of her culture, Rodriguez explains, “Without my culture, I wouldn’t be the same person. I wouldn’t have the same motivation or personality. Being Latina is so much more about the inside than the outside.”
She continues, “In fact, out of all my identities, I think being Latina has had the biggest and most important influence on my life.”
Perez reflects these sentiments when he states, “Yes, it would’ve been easier to be white. There’s always going to be that easier life that could’ve been, but I know that means I wouldn’t be the same person.”
There is one more thing MECHA has the goal of fostering in its members and in the Vassar community as a whole. Ventura shares, “Self-love is really important, and I’m starting to love this aspect of my identity. It’s who I am, what I study, what I plan to teach, and it has become the largest part of my identity, especially here at Vassar.”
When MECHA holds events, such as the past Día de los Muertos one, they are doing more than celebrating a holiday. They are celebrating a culture and a community that often goes unrecognized on this campus and many other places. And when being Latinx affects the identity of so many people as it does here on campus, that culture deserves to be celebrated.