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ALAS celebrates 20 years of fostering Hispanic community

| Scene Reporter

As Isabel Acevedo stood before the Washington University campus, one thing struck her—the trees. Despite the fact that it was April, the trees loomed naked over her. Bare, exposed and vulnerable without their familiar leaves to protect them.

“I was a little scared,” she said, now from the comfort of her desk in the Central West End. “I’m from Puerto Rico [and] seeing…the trees—they still didn’t have any leaves—and I had never seen how that looked before.”

That moment standing before Brookings was the end of a journey of almost 2,000 miles, leaving behind the known to enter boldly into the unclothed forest of the unknown. “I really didn’t know where Wash. U. was, where St. Louis was,” she said. “[My mother] motivated me to apply to Wash. U. because of the Annika Rodriguez scholarship.”

Her host that weekend, Elizabeth “SiSi” Beltran, was already a Rodriguez scholar, selected as one of the first business school recipients. More importantly though, she was president of the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS). During the next two days, she showed Acevedo the strength of the Wash. U. Latino community, topping off the weekend with a trip to Carnaval, the now-annual showcase of Latin American culture.

Acevedo still remembers it well: “That year [2002], Carnaval was in the Quad…it was just a medley [of different acts].

“The experiences I had that week with SiSi as a member of ALAS, with the other members of the Latino community, made me come here.”

Though serendipitous for Acevedo, ALAS’s presence on campus is far from it. ALAS exists as the result of hard work from countless generations of students, all done to increase the Hispanic community at Wash. U.

This past weekend, ALAS celebrated 20 years of Hispanic fellowship at Wash. U. Friday night.

ALAS welcomed back its former members with a reception in the DUC Formal Lounge. Saturday morning, current students, alumni, Top Care employees and Chancellor Mark Wrighton gathered for soccer games and barbeque at Amistad. Later that evening, ALAS hosted its 20th anniversary gala at the 560 Music Center with guest speakers, Nicaraguan food, a salsa performance by WUSauce and music from Mariachi Cuicacalli. More than 60 people, including 15 alumni, attended the gala. Sunday morning, ALAS saw off its visiting alumni with a farewell brunch.

In the coming month, ALAS will host El Mercado, an open-air market, during Parent & Family Weekend. SU Treasury also recently approved funds to bring Sofia Vergara, of “Modern Family” fame, to campus in the spring.

But ALAS hasn’t always been the thriving 60-members-strong group it is today. Until about 2000, no one is sure exactly what happened to ALAS. What they do know is that ALAS was founded in the fall of 1991, and Annika Rodriguez was one of its founding members, later its president. In 1993-94 a man named Ernesto served as president, and he wrote letters to the University stressing the importance of having Hispanics on campus. “A lot of what he [wrote],” Beltran said, “kind of planted the seed of what the Rodriguez scholarship would become.”

Five years later, the University created the Annika Rodriguez Scholars Program to honor a woman crucial to the development of the Hispanic community.

“We wanted to have more Latino students,” Edward S. Macias, provost and executive vice chancellor of academic affairs, explained. “We wanted to have a scholarship to help us attract [Latino] students. But we also wanted students who cared about Hispanic culture, whether they themselves are Latino or not.”

By 2002, when ALAS hosted its first Carnaval, the group had entered into a renaissance. “The kind of leadership that the Rodriguez program brought…the cohesion…[helped] bring this larger group [ALAS] together,” Macias said.

Under Beltran’s lead, the group began actively recruiting: “Our strategy was if we made the freshman believe ALAS was big, it would be big,” Beltran said. “We had our ‘Somos ALAS’ t-shirts. We were present at orientation activities. We put welcome signs on every Latino freshman’s door, so to them it [ALAS] was a big deal.”

That was in 2001. Now, 10 years later, the enrollment of Hispanic students has roughly quadrupled. In the last two years alone, the population of Latino students at Wash. U. has risen from 2 percent to just under 4 percent.

But the numbers aren’t all that’s important. What’s more important is the community.

Acevedo, a 2006 graduate, said, “The biggest legacy in my life [from ALAS] has been the friendships…the ALAS group is really my family. We see each other a few times a year. We’ve all been getting married. We go to each other’s weddings, and it’s like a big ALAS formal at the wedding.”

For the current generation of ALAS students, these connections remain. For some members, ALAS provides a place to connect with an already existing identity. For others, ALAS is where they discover their cultural roots or explore Hispanic culture for the first time. It acts as a home away from home, a family for students where commonalities abound.

Sophomore Andrea Bennett joked, “[ALAS is where] I could complain about not having pastelitos to eat, and everyone understood the pain I was in.”

The 20th Anniversary Gala on Saturday was part formal, part family reunion. Three generations of Maciases encircled one table. ALAS advisor and director of the Annika Rodriguez Scholar Program Julia Macias Garcia and her father, Provost Macias, watched her two energetic children hop around chairs. But throughout the hall another family was gathering, one 20 years in the making. Old friends reconnected and shared stories of the changes in their lives. New friends snapped pictures of each other with disposable cameras. Friends who couldn’t be present themselves emailed videos recalling their fondest ALAS memories.

It’s this family that has made all the difference for Isabel Acevedo.

“From not knowing where St. Louis was on the map to falling in love with the place and staying here for 10 years, [the ALAS community] really made me come [to Wash. U.],” she said. “When I got here, of course, ALAS was really a part of my life…Without ALAS, I think, no, I know my life would be a lot different.”