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Alumni Speak on Latino/a Life At and After Swarthmore

By
October 10, 2007

As one of the final events of Latino Heritage Month, last night Enlace invited four alumni to speak about their experiences in the world outside Swarthmore. The panelists – Steven Larin ’97, Maria McMath ’99, Valeria Jokisch ’01, and Rafael Hinojosa ’00 – talked about their accomplishments since leaving Swarthmore, as well as the Latino community that they remembered from their days as students.

The panelists represented a range of post-graduate experiences. Larin works as an attorney for the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, where he specializes in immigration law. After a stint as a professional musician, Jokisch is working for the Empowerment Group, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that works with many low-income Latino families. Both McMath and Hinojosa have ended up at Haverford, where McMath is a professor of Anthropology and Hinojosa works in the computing center. Although the roads they traveled to their current positions were sometimes straight, sometimes twisting, all four were able to trace their experiences back to their undergraduate careers.

For example, Lavin was an organizer in college. He took courses in government and got involved in politics, knowing that he was building towards a career helping others. In 1994 he was one of many students who organized a movement to protest California Proposition 187, which effectively criminalized immigrants. He thinks of college as a place where you can test ideas, make mistakes, and correct them if need be.

McMath took courses that allowed her to study what she wanted to, namely “her folks”, which included a class on Latino history that the students referred to as “Intro to Me”. After graduating, she worked for PBS, producing a documentary called “Justice for My People”, about the Mexican-American doctor Hector Garcia.

Jokisch emphasized the fact that Swarthmore teaches students how to think, even if they end up doing something completely unexpected after they graduate. For example, she found herself taking over as the manager of a non-profit organization with no formal training, and suddenly managing the entire organization’s budget.

For Hinojosa, arguably the least politically-minded of the panelists, college was defined by the people he spent time with as a student and by the activities he pursued. Unlike other students who approach their education as a stepping stone to an eventual career, he said “it wasn’t until after I got out that I realized the things I’d always loved were what I wanted to do”.

All agreed that, whatever you think of the experience within the Swat bubble, once you’ve made it through your years here you’ll be prepared for anything. The transition was sometimes jarring; according to Hinojosa, it was hard to learn “not to be so outlandish and outspoken [but] to be in the norm and approach with caution, [and not] be out of the box 24/7″, and Jokisch quipped that in the world outside the Swat bubble she found herself having many conversations about the weather. But the panelists reassured the audience that the effort they were putting in here would serve them well later on.

The panelists also talked about their experiences as Latino/a students, and how they perceived the Latino community at Swarthmore. As with their postgraduate experiences, their stories reflected a range of experiences and some of the tensions within the community.

For Jokisch, who is from El Salvador and considered herself an international student, the Latino community at Swarthmore didn’t play a big role in her life. She had an idea, she said, that “the Hispanic association is for Hispanic students from the US”, and she didn’t fit that model. After graduating, her ideas slowly changed. Although she says that she “didn’t expect to be working with the hispanic community”, she eventually found that she “felt a strong pull to be working with them” and since then that involvement has become a big part of her work and identity.

In contrast, McMath remembers herself as an “angry student” who was very involved in Latino issues, even founding a separate group for Mexican political issues when she felt they were not being adequately addressed in Hola, the Latino association. As a professor, she recognizes the prejudices of academia, which only “get turned up more” at the professional level. “Even in this bastion of tolerance,” she said, “people are still racist”.

Hinojosa touched on a common thread of the panelists and attendees experience when he talked about the identity conflict that he as well as Latino student groups faced. He himself found it hard to relate at Swarthmore because he was a resident alien and carried a green card, but this difficulty was magnified when he became president of Hola and thought “how am I going to unite ALL Latino people?” Because people don’t always agree, he said, it’s important to “be humble, listen to what people say, [and] think about your responsibility to them.”

When Enlace president Grace Kaissal ’10 asked the next question, “how encompassing is the Latino community on campus?” a student in the audience whispered loudly, “Give us the answer!”

After the laughter died down, Hinojosa replied, “that’s part of life; you’re going to have to deal with these questions even after you leave Swarthmore.”

The question of how to find unity among disparate Latino groups on campus is obviously a pressing one, but it is not a new one. Building a strong community, at Swarthmore as well as in the world beyond, is not an easy task. Jokisch sees tension between different groups every day in Northeast Philadelphia, where an entrenched but largely unnoticed Puerto Rican population and a newly arrived Central American population are battling for funding and social services. This question, she said, of “what your origin means for interaction with other groups,” is even more important after college.

One solution, suggested by Lavin, is for there to be more continuity between student groups and alumni, so that when problems come up they don’t have to be solved all over again. An example of alumni expertise he mentioned was when, after the Class of 1999 had only 15 Latino students, he and other students spoke to the Head of Admissions, and the next year there were 60, in the most minority-heavy class ever. If this episode has been forgotten about, he said, it’s because the administration “doesn’t want there to be ‘another Class of 2000′,” and there is no way for students to learn about it.

But ultimately, he said, “the answer is just to listen and organize around issues,” even if not everyone agrees. “If it’s just you, do it. If you think you’re right, great, do it.” And, he added, “come together on the similarities.”