Oscar-winning film “Encanto” … billion-dollar business The Honest Company … the artificial heart … Broadway phenomenon “Hamilton.”
These success stories have something in common—Latinos were the driving force behind all of them.
Of course, these are just some of the countless contributions to society by Hispanic visionaries. During National Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), Americans celebrate those Latino innovators who have changed the world, as well as the rich culture of one of the nation’s fastest growing populations.
At the University of Houston, where one-third of students are Hispanic, these four weeks are particularly special. Each day, UH breaks new ground as Texas’ very first Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and a newly minted member of the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Research Universities.
UH also is renowned for its programs aimed at preserving Hispanic culture in Houston and beyond. These include Arte Público Press, the nation's oldest publisher of Hispanic literature, and the popular musical troupe, Mariachi Pumas.
Most importantly, the University prepares future generations of Latino leaders through its centers, academic programs and organizations on campus.
These include the Center for Mexican American and Latino/a Studies (CMALS). Launched in 1972, the center promotes an interdisciplinary exploration of Mexican American and Latino issues through curriculum, research and degree programs. Students can learn about experiences and contributions of the Latino community in the United States through a new Bachelor of Arts in Mexican American and Latino(a) Applied Studies, approved earlier this year by the UH System Board of Regents.
“We know from research that ethnic studies are positively associated with academic performance, and a Latino studies program provides a meaningful way in which Latinos are centered in a culture of inclusiveness, collaboration and innovation,”said Pamela Quiroz, director of the Center for Mexican American and Latino(a) Studies.
Student Carlos Guajardo is certainly benefitting from both the center’s and the University’s commitment to its Latino students. A native Houstonian, Guajardo is pursuing a master’s degree in sociology and recently earned a CMALS Graduate Fellowship. This support, he said, has allowed him to excel both academically and personally. It also is helping him give back to Houston’s Hispanic community.
Through the fellowship, Guajardo is helping spotlight the creative efforts of Houston-area Latino artists and ensure their works find audiences within our city. He is particularly grateful to UH for providing programs and projects that embrace Hispanic culture.
“Having this center on campus is important for students like myself,” he said. “It provides students with opportunities to engage with communities and helps us gain new perspectives and think outside of the box regarding topics related to the Hispanic experience.”
While CMALS has supported students for over five decades, new organizations are emerging to further meet students’ needs. One such group is the University’s new chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). One of its founders is its vice president, Alejandro Ramirez.
In helping start this organization, the physics doctoral candidate recognized the difference he could make in the lives of underserved students. In addition to hosting professional development and cultural events on campus, SACNAS also works in Houston-area schools to engage young students in STEM activities.
“I realized that by becoming a Hispanic physicist, I am contributing to the advancement of minority students in STEM,” he said. “This is an area which suffers from underrepresentation of minorities. I can be part of the living proof that minority students can become scientists, particularly when incoming Hispanic students are doubtful about their chances of success in STEM.”
The University’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) is another relatively new student organization. Based in the Tillman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, the group unites and empowers aspiring Hispanic physicians. Likewise, its members promote awareness of those health issues affecting Hispanic communities.
“Hispanics make up almost 40% of the Texas population. Yet, we are severely underrepresented in health care,” said Iliana Oberkircher, LMSA president. “Children and young students need to see themselves in us when we practice medicine so that they can believe ‘que si se puede’ and they can also stand where we are one day.”
“I realized that by becoming a Hispanic physicist, I am contributing to the advancement of minority students in STEM.”
Finance and marketing junior Christian Avalos agrees about the importance of Hispanic representation in critical fields and in positions of leadership. His family arrived from Mexico 10 years ago without knowing anyone in Houston. Seeing successful Latinos in Houston was indeed inspiring, and motivated Avalos to navigate academic institutions in his new city.
He first attended Houston Community College then transferred to UH, where he discovered the Hispanic Business Student Association (HBSA). With its focus on professional and personal development, the group made him feel welcome on campus. Fast forward to today, and he is now the president of HBSA—the largest student group in the Bauer College with nearly 300 members.
According to Avalos, both HBSA and UH essentially have provided him with a “home” for learning alongside fellow Latinos and developing life skills that will benefit him long after graduating.
“The University of Houston serves so many first-generation Hispanic students,” he said. “It not only helps these students succeed, but it also connects them with other Latinos from throughout the state if not from other countries. It’s a university that truly recognizes Hispanic students’ achievements and provides an inclusive environment for learning and growing.”
The aforementioned student organizations—HBSA, SACNAS and LMSA— are planning events for Hispanic Heritage Month. Beyond those happenings, the leaders of these groups concur that this will be a special moment across campus. All agree that it will be a time to commemorate the achievements of Latinos on campus and in our communities, as well as the University’s role in shaping future leaders.
“This is a month to reflect on the strength and resilience of our culture,” said Ana C. Martinez, medical student and member of UH’s Latino Medical Student Association (pictured right). “It is a great reminder that we are doing important work, and our community will be better because of it.”