Latinos at University struggle finding community

Lila Downs, a ’92 alumna and artist, shared her experience with University students.
Grammy winner and University alumni Lila Downes sings and dances to one of her songs with Académia César Chavez middle school and El Colegio high school students on Friday, March 8, 2013, at the Regis Center.
  • Meghan Holden
March 11, 2013


For Lila Downs, being a Latina at the University of Minnesota wasn’t easy.

The recent Grammy winner and 1992 University alumna said her experience during school was sometimes “painful,” as she didn’t have many other Latinos to connect with.

“I didn’t really have a Latino community,” Downs said. “I felt like I was quite alone.”

This can be the reality for many other Latino or Chicano students at the University, who made up 2.6 percent of the University’s population in fall 2012. About 5 percent of Minnesota’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino in 2011.

On Friday, Downs discussed the struggles she faced being Latina in Minnesota and how she coped through creating music with students from the departments of Chicano and Latino studies and Spanish and Portuguese studies, as well as Latino students from the area.

Downs, who was born in Mexico and grew up in the Twin Cities area, said her bicultural reality caused her to be confused about who she was at times.

Marco Cruz, Chicano and Latino studies junior, said he can relate to Downs because he’s from Mexico originally and feels conflicted about who he is at school.

“Lately I’ve been wrestling with the whole issue of identity. I think that’s a big notion for immigrants overall,” Cruz said. “You feel like you’re not from here, but you’re not from back home.”

The small population of Latinos at the University was surprising for chemical engineering graduate student Carmelo Declet, who came to the University after receiving his undergraduate degree in his native Puerto Rico.

“You find yourself where there is a very small community of Latino or Hispanic students,” Declet said. “You can feel the difference.”

Many Latino students at the University struggle between their two identities, said Lisa Sass Zaragoza, Chicano and Latino studies professor and coordinator of outreach programs.

“It’s challenging to not see folks who look like you, so you have to figure out how to negotiate a lot of worlds,” Sass Zaragoza said.

Because the Latino population is relatively small in Minnesota and at the University, it’s important that students see someone who is like them and also successful, she said.

She said Downs is an important role model for Latino students because she’s someone who “looks like them” and has similar experiences.

“She embodies somebody who crosses borders,” Sass Zaragoza said.

Downs studied voice and anthropology at the University. In February, she won a Grammy for the Best Regional Mexican Album with “Pecados y Milagros.”

William Fenelon, a high school senior at St. Thomas Academy, said seeing Downs and other Latino students at the University made him feel more comfortable with the idea of attending the University.

“This is very influential in my decision, seeing that there’s other Latin Americans and Hispanic people who are out there,” Fenelon said. “It’s a sense of comfort.”

Fenelon said he’s the only Latino at his high school.

“It can be somewhat discouraging at times,” he said.

University students agreed that having events for Latinos is encouraging.

“It’s great that things like this happen,” Declet said.

Downs encouraged Latino students to be proud of their heritage and share it with others.

“Express who you are and teach people who you are,” she said.

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