Initiation rites are not uncommon for college organizations, especially for Greek life. Some fraternities put pledges through a cookie eating and milk chugging contests; some sororities make their pledges sport the same hair styles or outfits. But Sigma Lambda Upsilon sorority’s intense pledging practices make those other rites of passage seem like a walk in the park.
For roughly a two month period, Natasha Borrero ’06, Marisol Leon ’07, Shelly Rivas ’06 and Liara Silva ’07 lived together in one room. They marched in a military line everywhere they went, sporting grey sweatshirts and arm bands. They took a vow of silence, speaking to no one but their fellow pledges. And the pledges said they faced harassment — both physical and verbal — from fellow Yale students.
Founded at Binghamton University in 1987, the Latina sorority opened its Pi Chapter on the Yale campus during the 1998-1999 school year. After the last of the founding hermanas (sisters, in Spanish) graduated in 2002, however, the chapter disappeared until this fall. The newest pledge class, formally initiated on Wednesday night, is reviving SLU at Yale.
SLU is Yale’s only Latina sorority, and was founded to bring female leaders in the Latino community together. The founding sisters set a strong precedent of community service, and were even honored by the national SLU organization for having the most creative community service projects. In addition to building a stronger Latina community at Yale, the alumnae hermanas said their graduate work with other SLU alumnae has been invaluable.
“It’s opened so many new doors,” said Rivas, a new hermana. “It’s an incredible networking experience. … Before I started pledging, I didn’t know how beneficial it was in enhancing the Latina cultural experience.”
The new pledges were instructed by two of the Pi chapter’s founding sisters, Nancy Rosas ’01 and Miriam Mercado-Sargusingh ’99. Rosas and Mercado-Sargusingh coordinated the pledging process and said they trusted the girls to follow the guidelines.
Rosas said the unique pledge process helps bond the hermanas.
“The purpose of [the pledging process] was just like for any team,” Rosas said. “Teams have uniforms that are supposed to emphasize a team concept. A uniform is supposed to symbolize discipline and unity and fellowship. … People aren’t used to seeing women or men running around in uniforms on a daily basis and that happens to defy a social norm.”
But the SLU pledges said the uniforms and marching, which made them stand out on campus, engendered harassment.
The verbal harassment directed at the pledges was mostly racial slurs, Gabe Hernandez ’07 said. Hernandez pledged SLU’s brother fraternity, Lambda Upsilon Lambda, last fall, and said he was subjected to the same sorts of slurs while he was undergoing a process much like the SLU pledge process. But the LUL brothers experience no physical violence, Hernandez said.
“We all definitely felt anger,” Hernandez said. “[The SLU pledges] were definitely prepared for a lot of [harassment] because the nature of the process lends itself to being misunderstood, but they’re definitely very upset, especially when they were assaulted. As soon as they were in their uniforms they became very accustomed to constant insults or laughs or scared laughs, but there’s a line between verbal battering and straight up physical assault.”
New hermana Silva, who said she was attacked twice — once while walking alone and once with her fellow pledges — said that the abuse was part of the learning process. She said she was kicked and elbowed.
“I’m really happy to have gone through the process,” Silva said. “I learned a lot from it. The violence was really upsetting but that was another thing I learned. I learned about what’s out there. It was upsetting but we were doing our thing, and we knew why we were doing our thing.”
Though the girls said they encountered violence more than once, they said they never filed a formal report with the University because they could not identify their aggressors.
Director of Latino and Native American cultural centers Rosalinda Garcia said she had heard no specifics about the incidents, but supports the students.
“I am very protective of these particular students because, as I said, I have close relationships with them and hate to hear that they might have been subject to this,” Garcia said in an e-mail.
SLU alumnae Mercado-Sargusingh, Rosas and Zazy Lopez ’00 detailed multiple incidents in which this year’s pledges faced abuse, stressing that although Yale students were not involved in one incident, they believe that the rest of the perpetrators were students. They said the incidents were carried out by “sober white males,” and often happened in broad daylight.
One episode of abuse occurred outside of Linsly-Chittenden Hall in broad daylight, Mercado-Sargusingh said. She said the pledge was kicked as she walked by LC, incurring bruises that the alumni said were obviously visible.
They also recounted an incident that occurred in front of Trumbull when a “white male” went on all fours in front of the line to attempt to stop the pledges from their ritual marching.
“Because of the uniform [the pledges wear] and the social probation where they don’t talk to the public, I don’t know if that’s giving people a so-called liberty where people can touch them and harass them,” Mercado-Sargusingh said. “They are still human beings and have rights. … It really embarrasses me as an alumni.”
The pledges wrote a statement to address the harassment they faced, saying that given their innocent intentions, there was no reason for their abuse.
“All we seek is to empower ourselves and other Latinas and women of color, why is that such a threat?” the document reads. “… We feel that physical assault (and even the laughing and pointing) questions whether Yale is, in fact, a progressive institution; how can it be, when four young Latina undergrads can’t walk on campus without feeling physically threatened?”
Still, the pledges took the abuse in stride while trying to attain their ultimate goal of becoming hermanas.
“I took it all in passing,” Rivas said. “I know partaking in the pledging process would benefit me for my lifetime. Whatever happened during the two month period doesn’t faze me. What I’m striving for in the end is something I know is all worth it.”