What does it mean to have a voice? To exhale carbon dioxide through a series of elastic tubes that eventually cross over the vocal cords, producing a coherent sound, or is it something else? It is more than just voluntary breathing, a voice is a way for us to communicate with each other. Words are exchanged, shouts of joy are expressed, and concerns can become real. But there is so much more to having a voice that goes way beyond the science or even the ability to communicate. Having a voice means that we are granted capacity for change. There is an innate power within the voice, like a feverish rumbling of emotions given auditory form. We hear the sound of our voices every single day, yet there are times when a projected noise can serve as a wake-up call for the world.
Estamos Aqui UNC was a movement quickly born and set into motion by the Latinx community at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (my alma mater). The call for the movement was simple, “Latinx students DEMAND a SPACE. We DEMAND REPRESENTATION. We DEMAND SUPPORT from UNC”. Let me start by saying that this is my community as well. During my tenure at the university, I was welcomed into this community that flourished, despite the lack of university support. It was here that I was taught about the various Hispanic and Latin American cultures, introduced to the best dishes (omg pupusas), and made lasting friendships with students who doubled as campus leaders (and I picked up some dance moves too). I share these experiences with you to serve as living proof of what this community is capable of; not only are they able to thrive and support each other, but they can also open their arms for others who are genuinely interested in learning about them. This is more than just a group of students bonding over experiences, this is a full-fledged family willing to aid their fellow brother and sister whenever possible. The Latinx family at UNC-CH is centered right above the heart of the campus, serving as the lungs, giving the campus a breath of fresh air. Over the years, however, the lack of support from the university, in relation to other organizations, has forced these proud individuals space that no longer allows them to feel secure.
After the Carolina Latino/Latina Collaborative (CLC) was officially recognized in 2010, they were quickly confined into three cramped seminar rooms at the bottom of Craige North, a student dormitory located on South Campus. The entire Latinx population, which is now roughly ~1500 undergraduate students, have to share this minuscule space; and the leaders don’t even have full ownership of it. Before they can access their designated rooms, students must borrow keys from the dorm, and return them after each use. On top of that, the space is also shared amongst the general student body and Housing department; in essence, even these rooms do not belong to the Latinx students. It has been evident for years that the Latinx community needed a larger venue, yet their cries were brushed off by the university. Now, the community has finally removed the muzzle placed over it’s mouth by the institution and is proclaiming its place at the campus, which gave birth to the protest. At the event, students and alumni both took the stage to share their experiences and testimonies. Here are some of their stories below.
“People don’t understand what it feels like to be one of the few Hispanic students in the class when you look around and no one else looks like you…but how would our students feel if we walked into this center and you know immediately…that there are people there who understand what I’m going through.” – Rubi
“We need to speak up to the university and tell them that we matter, and what they’re doing right now is showing us that we don’t.” – Laura
“I am one story out of many…coming to college as a Latinx student is a completely different universe. There are barriers.” – Christopher
“I hope this [the center proposal] isn’t new to you. We’ve been asking for it for years, but this can’t continue. I’ve sacrificed…for the survival of these programs. I know I’m not the only one, and I’ll do it again to support these programs.” – Diana
“I wish I could say that I disagree with the things that you said, but I do agree with them…the Latinx community is important to this university and even to this state. It’s important in every single way for us to be a university for the people, for all the people.” – Chancellor Folt
One by one voices were shared; some accompanied by tears and others full of dispelled anger. It was evident that the students were not just tired, they felt as if they didn’t belong. The majority of Latinx students must double as leaders, employees, and even care-takers for their families. One student made it clear that the Latinx-based campus activities hosted by the university were actually the product of a “handful of work-study students, who were granted very little support from the university.” Another claimed that “UNC’s Rock Climbing club (no shade to them) had been given more grant money than the Carolina Hispanic Association (CHispA).” For years, students have worked to keep programs such as Hispanic Heritage Month and the Latino/Latina Alumni Reunion alive without any major assistance from the university, while the campus flaunted its titles of inclusiveness and diversity. Chancellor Folt, who was present, addressed the crowd along with Vice Chancellor James Dean. Folt gave her apologies to the students while Dean informed the crowd of the university’s decision to open up two more staff positions at the CLC. The students responded with mixed reviews, some were glad that more full-time positions were opening up, however most were unimpressed, claiming that the move was only going to provide “temporary relief to a longstanding issue”. The new opportunity for greater assistance would be nice addition to the Latinx community; however it isn’t solely what the students are asking for, and that is where the dilemma arises. The new positions aid in the proper representation but it does not fully address their concerns. This protest is one of the many first steps the community is taking to achieve their goal, which is creating safe place for Latinx students to commute and congregate while at UNC, their home away from home.
There is a capacity of power housed within the lungs of each individual. We enter this world with inaudible screams, and as we age, we learn to channel this chatter into something substantial. However, if power remains unused for an extended period of time, it’s capacity for momentum can diminish. This is why it is important for the youth to find their voices. As I stood in front of the crowd I couldn’t help but be proud to see the young faces within it; and they were all in the same location. It’s important for us to find our voice as early as possible, but it is even more imperative that we meet others who share stories similar to our own. When voices of the same caliber come into harmony, the power is exponentially multiplied, resulting in significant changes. In the end, I am more than proud to have witnessed the beginning of a Golden Momentum within the same community that helped me discover mine.