ARAGON: Understanding cultural centers

I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I set foot in La Casa Cultural, Yale’s Latino cultural house. It was the spring of 2010 and I was a disoriented prefrosh trying too hard to make friends. I had decided to make my way over to La Casa because I am half-Mexican and was curious to see what exactly this “casa” at the predominantly white and Northeastern Yale was, but also because I had heard rumors of delicious food being served (the number one attraction). What is a cultural house? What types of people go there, and what do they do? These were the questions that floated through my head as I walked down Crown Street with my gaggle of pre-friends.

As soon as I stepped through the door, I was greeted warmly and whisked into the gallery (more like a living room, really). I spent a long time talking to current Yale students as well as other prefrosh (I remember particularly a red-haired girl from Kansas and a suave young Hawaiian man) about the anxiety and excitement surrounding moving across the coast, from California to Connecticut, for college. La Casa put me at ease, but it wasn’t the only cultural center I visited that day. I felt similarly welcomed on trips later to both the Asian American Cultural House (for more socializing over food) and the Afro-American Cultural House (for their dance party). At each place, I was greeted with smiles and friendly questions.

Over the past two years spent working with La Casa and more intimately with several of over 30 organizations housed under its umbrella, I have met an incredibly diverse set of people. Though La Casa is a “Latino” cultural house, within that house there are numerous distinct countries and cultures represented, as well as a myriad of personal and political viewpoints, from enthusiastically liberal to emphatically conservative to earnestly religious and everything in between. I have met Colombians, Cubans, Guatemalans and Peruvians. I have met Catholics and non-believers, queer and straight people. I have met, most importantly, a loving and accepting community that learns from our collective differences to become something better.

However, these interactions are not limited to Hispanics. La Casa and other cultural houses such as the AACC, the Af-Am House and the Native American Cultural House host a constant stream of campus-wide events, many co-sponsored with groups from around Yale. Cultural houses host dinners with the Slifka Center, dances with the LGBTQ Co-op and panels with the Yale Law School to both unify and provoke thought in Yale’s large student body. My freshman year, freshmen liaisons from La Casa and the AACC organized an event that drew together over 100 students for a discussion on race at Yale. None of these heavily advertised events are restricted to members of the cultural houses and they encompass a plethora of topics (many unrelated to ethnicity) applicable to students regardless of their race or “ethnic affiliation.” Incredibly, individuals who choose to be involved with cultural centers also continue to exist in social, political and academic spheres outside of those houses, as members of the YPU, dance teams, social justice movements, academic departments and even sororities! It’s true that friend groups grow out of La Casa, which some see as exclusive, but how is that any different from a cappella or fraternity friends? We need to ask ourselves why these groups, which essentially present the same issue, aren’t scrutinized the same way that cultural centers are.

Importantly, as my friend Cathy Huang ’15, a leader at the AACC, noted, groups at Yale are not automatically granted their own space. The current cultural houses only exist because enough students at one point in time expressed interest that realized a critical mass. Students fought hard and long for these centers and they are deeply valued today as community centers and resource hubs, imbuing students with a sense of “hosting” others and being the educators in a system that is traditionally not inclusive of non-Western histories, cultures and peoples. That is incredibly impactful and empowering for the students involved.

Our time at Yale is experienced through countless groupings and affiliations. Cultural houses are one of these optional associations and are arguably some of the most diverse places on campus. They provide a safe space for students who want additional support outside of dean-appointed froco groups. They provide funding for hundreds of organizations and events. They welcome people of all backgrounds to come together in a common space, and they provide a community for any student willing to step out of their everyday sphere of assumptions and experience something new, while also kindling something familiar.

Katherine Aragon is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at katherine.aragon@yale.edu .

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