For Katrina Gipson ’04, it was an obligation. Jason Cabico ’04 was looking for the familiar flavors of home-cooked meals. And Victoria Lai ’04 can’t quite put her finger on it.
Even though Gipson, Cabico and Lai had different reasons for becoming involved, each found a home in one of Yale’s cultural houses — the Afro-American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Asian American Cultural Center, respectively — with house events crowding their calendars and names of newfound friends filling their address books.
The history of the cultural houses is as diverse as their members, but the present holds similar promise for all three institutions, with rising membership, prestige and effectiveness. Students who make the effort to become involved with the houses find a variety of affiliated organizations, a supportive network of peers, and discover a variety of new experiences, from ice cream socials to letter-writing campaigns to speeches by guests.
On any given day, a tour through the three establishments will find students praying, Korean drum troupe practices, study breaks featuring ethnic food, quilting groups, political groups planning protests, and film screenings. Some students simply join their friends to take in some television or use computers and enjoy a quiet evening at their home away from home.
“We’re a place where students feel comfortable and supported when exploring aspects of their identity,” said Saveena Dhall, assistant dean and director of the Asian-American Cultural Center. “Students are encouraged to create programs, organize discussions and put on programs that help affirm their identity, explore their heritage, as well as allow them to share their culture and background or engage in dialogues with members of the Yale community.”
Such a dialogue has been paramount to the founding of all three houses. For one, the Afro-American Cultural Center, or “the House,” still pursues the goals that a group of pioneering Yalies outlined in 1966. When fourteen black males joined the Yale class of 1968 — a record number — they worked with upperclassmen to form the Black Student Alliance at Yale. BSAY outlined four broad issues that would frame its efforts for years to come: increased African-American enrollment, the development of African American Studies, better relations with the New Haven community, and the establishment of a cultural center.
“The House” on 211 Park St. was completed in 1969, and it immediately became just that — a place for students to gather to find what they might otherwise miss at college, Gipson said.
The House “provides a support system, and it’ll make it that much easier to become involved in the Yale community,” said Gipson, who is co-publicity chair for BSAY, one of nineteen groups affiliated with the House. “I felt obligated to be involved in black community, and I thought this was the best way to do it.”
Making the long trek from Costa Mesa, Calif., Cabico was attracted by the people he met at La Casa and by their similar backgrounds. “If certain foods were big to you at home, La Casa sometimes has these food parties,” Cabico said. “It’s like a family away from home.”
Cabico himself was not used to being part of a cultural group. His large public high school in Orange County, Calif., boasted a diverse student body that was nearly one-third Hispanic. Diversity, he said, was not an issue in high school, where the few cultural organizations that did exist only operated on a social level.
By contrast, La Casa has had a political purpose since its founding in 1974 by a group of Puerto Rican undergraduates and New Haven residents who wished to promote Puerto Rican culture. By 1977, La Casa was up and running at its current location. Within seven years, Chicanos, Native Americans and Asian-Americans shared a cultural center as well, but a degree of identity was still missing.
It was only after the administration threatened to demolish the cultural centers that students — after protesting and securing the future of the houses — became interested in uniting all Latino students under one roof. The new La Casa incorporated the original La Casa Julia de Burgos — the Puerto Rican Cultural Center — and the Mexican-American Cultural Center. The unification was completed in time for Cabico to attend his first meeting during his freshman year.
The houses and their affiliated organizations make a particular effort to reach out to freshmen, Dhall said.
“Most of our affiliated groups work hard to welcome first year students,” Dhall said. “[We] let them know these opportunities exist and we are here to support them in multiple ways as the need arises.”
Lai, one of three freshman liaisons to the Asian-American Student Alliance, which operates from the cultural center, found out about the center the same way most freshmen do, through early events and communicating with upperclassmen.
“I can’t quite remember at what time during the year that I decided to be a part of AASA,” Lai sad. “I remember getting an e-mail from Liana Chang [’02], then the AASA moderator, advertising new positions open.”
Lai and her fellow freshman liaisons were the first students to fill such a position, and they were able to expose the freshman class to the cultural center by offering study breaks and socials.
The cultural centers are also a hub of political activity. Students enjoy the fruits of the houses’ familial feel while laboring for greater political causes, Gipson said.
The houses also hosted a variety of speakers, including Spike Lee and Wen Ho Lee’s daughter, Alberta Lee. La Casa celebrated Mexican dance at its third annual show, while BSAY organized its sixth annual intercollegiate Black Solidarity Conference, and AASA organized events for Hate Crimes Awareness Week.