Association of Latin American Students explores its roots in WU history

Quincy Schmechel | Contributing Writer

Suite 301 of the Women’s Building is tucked quietly into a corner of the third floor, and from the outside, the rickety door looks like it opens to any other old room.

But the inside is different. As the Association of Latin American Students’ (ALAS) headquarters, the suite is decorated with a myriad of flags from nearly every American country, pinatas and handmade posters proclaiming “America is 2 continents, united not divided.”

As September is Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s no surprise that ALAS will be hard at work within the Washington University community over the next few weeks, but the group’s Sept. 12 meeting didn’t focus on that.

Rather, the meeting focused on the meaning of being Latinx, the history of ALAS’ involvement in the lives of Latin American students’ lives at Wash. U. since the group’s start in 1991 and how the group’s role has changed since then.

“We’ve been around for so long,” laughed Maria Cortez Lopez, the association’s coheritage chair.

“A lot of people confuse being Latinx with race,” said last year’s president Jasmine Delgado. “But it’s really an ethnicity for if you are part of Latin America, which would be North, Central, South or even parts of the Caribbean, etc. It’s just about having your roots in Latinx soil. It may be that you’re part of a familia, or a culture or a dance. It can mean a lot of things”

But being Latinx goes beyond a simply family tree; it’s personal.

For Delgado, “Latinx means that I have a huge pride in being from Mexico and coming from an immigrant family and in being part of this familia—familia meaning your community and just who you are,” she said. “It’s something very traditional in the Latinx community, that no matter where you’re from, we are where your roots are. Like a tree, you can branch out from different places and grow up in your own way, but you’re always going to be connected to the same roots and soil that nourished you and allowed you to flourish. It’s so much more than what people think Latinxs can be.”

The executive members of ALAS were gathered around a table in the center of the suite, which was full of old pictures of previous members, pamphlets and programs from previous Carnavales, posters and an old scrapbook. These artifacts facilitated conversation about ALAS’ history at Wash. U.

The group also discussed the rise and fall of Latinx representation at Wash. U., which now hovers around eight percent of the student body, an increase from previous years.

“ALAS is an all-inclusive group; so, everyone is welcome to join,” Delgado said. “They try to teach you about Latinx history and culture. For me, as a Latinx, that was directly where I went because that’s where I felt the most comfort. [For some] it’s really about discovering who they are.”

Because of the nature of being Latinx, and the turmoil that has risen around those of Latin American decent in recent years, ALAS has undergone a transformation. Originally formed as an umbrella group, ALAS’ political voice has had to be less-voiced than that of other groups, such as Alta-Voz, due to the varying voices and political opinions of the populations ALAS represents. In recent years, though, ALAS has changed this identity.

“Existing [as Latinx] in Wash. U. is a political statement by itself,” remarked ALAS President Sofia Orelo during the meeting.

“We can’t really be apolitical at that point,” Delgado added.

Last year, ALAS voiced concerns about DACA by holding protests at the University.

“When Trump removed [DACA], Wash. U. hadn’t declared itself as a safe campus,” Delgado recalled. “So, if the government came and asked about undocumented students, [the University] could [tell them]. Basically, ALAS organized protests. We realized being born Latinx isn’t a choice, and there’s no way to not be political about who you are. We’re here, and we’re always going to be fighting.”

The last topics the group covered revolved around what they hope to accomplish in the year. These goals included better preparing students for life after undergraduate studies and beyond, engaging alums more and reaching out to younger peers in more effective ways.

During September, ALAS will be active on campus by holding different events, while throughout St. Louis, the city will be celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with festival-like celebrations in the city.

“There was a time when we really weren’t accepted at all,” Delgado explained. “So, Hispanic Heritage Month is about really showing pride and celebrating who we are.”