More than 50 members of the Yale community gathered to listen to Catherine Kissee-Sandoval ’81, the keynote speaker for La Casa Cultural’s month-long celebration of Latino Heritage Month (LHM), as she recalled her undergraduate years at the Afro-American Cultural Center last night.

Sandoval, who currently serves as commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission, was one of three distinguished alumni invited back to campus for the festivities, according to Sebastian Perez GRD ’18, La Casa’s head graduate assistant who helped coordinate many events. Perez said this year’s LHM, Perez said, focuses on celebrating alumni, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes ’99 and University of California-Davis Chicano Studies professor Maceo Montoya ’02, who were invited as guests for other events in the month.

“We’re all coming together … to think back through our history, learn from those that came before us, and honor their accomplishments,” Perez said.

Sandoval had much to say about how things have changed since her time at Yale. She remembered having to protest in the President’s Office against the abolition of the assistant deanship of Latino affairs — a position whose current iteration is now filled by La Casa Interim Director Amanda Hernandez MED ’16. She also remembered having to work around the unfortunate lack of scholarly literature — without Internet, she added — on affirmative action in the Ivy League colleges after deciding to write her thesis on the topic.

In spite of these setbacks, Sandoval went on to become the first Latina Rhodes Scholar, and she added that she could not have done it without her education at Yale and the communities that embraced her, including Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) de Yale and the Black Church at Yale.

“Yale was a place that actually supported diversity [and] recognized diversity as a strength,” she said, comparing her home institution to schools like Harvard and Bryn Mawr, which only marginally encouraged the presence of minority students.

LHM consists of near-daily events between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. Events have included screenings, an open mic night and a cookout. More than 15 planned events are still to come over the next couple of weeks, including discussions about violence against women and portrayals of queer Latinos in the media, as well as dance workshops.

Benjamin Bartolome ’16, a student coordinator at La Casa involved with the planning of LHM, said he is very pleased with the way this year’s La Casa events have been progressing, noting that they have been well-attended by both members of Yale’s Latino community and those who have traditionally not been affiliated with any La Casa-related groups.

For instance, Bartolome said, an annual La Casa retreat that took place a couple of weeks ago saw its highest turnout yet with over 100 attendees, many of whom were not of Latino descent.

The larger and more diverse audiences indicate that La Casa’s mission statement — which includes “providing a comfortable space where our diverse cultural heritage, history and traditions can be celebrated and explored by all Yale University and New Haven community members” — is being fulfilled.

“Even though our speakers are very prevalent in the Latino [and] Latina community, their accomplishments resonate with everyone,” Bartolome said. “Anyone can benefit from hearing any aspect of their experience.”

Bartolome added that he sees LHM as a time to allow the Latino community to celebrate its own traditions, but also to spread knowledge, education and interest to others.

Sandoval’s speaking engagement was co-sponsored by the Traphagen Alumni Speaker Series and Ezra Stiles College.