Hermandades on Campus: Elite Latino Secret Societies and Fraternities of the Past Give Way to Today's `Brotherhoods' and `Sisterhoods'

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Hermandades on Campus: Elite Latino Secret Societies and Fraternities of. the Past Give Way to Today's `Brotherhoods' and `Sisterhoods'

The history of Latino fraternities and sororities is very different than that of their Black counterparts -- although in terms of mission, though much younger, they are attempting to play the same role in their own communities.

In a general sense, Latinos did not form Greek-letter fraternal organizations until the 1980s. Part of the reason is that, historically, there were no Latino colleges and, also, due to de facto and de jure segregation in K-12 education, very few Latinos attended all-white colleges.

At the few universities (such as the College of the Mines -- now the University of Texas at El Paso) where Mexican Americans and Latinos did attend pre-1980s, fraternities and sororities were virtually off-limits to them unless they "passed" or hid their identity. During the politically turbulent 1960s, most Chicano/Latino students who joined campus organizations usually ended up in political groups.

Secret Societies

Juan Rodriguez, a founder and vice president of the board of directors of Sigma Lambda Beta -- represented on 32 campuses nationwide -- says that Latino fraternities actually existed in the late 1800s but their members were elite and wealthy individuals from Latin America who attended prestigious U.S. universities. They formed secret societies which evolved into alliances or loose-knit "fraternities" of Latinos who shared the same social background.

The secret societies came into being on such campuses as the University of Southwestern Louisiana, the University of Michigan, MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, says Rodriguez. Students, after returning to their home countries, became aware of one other and formed alliances. These organizations did not generally involve the local population and, accordingly, died out in the 1930s.

All but one. Phi Iota Alpha, founded in 1888 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, still exists today.

Rodriguez, who is also the interim president of the Concilio Nacional de Hermandades Latinas -- the National Council of Latino Fraternities and Sororities -- says many of the Latino fraternities were formed mostly in the Midwest and East because they felt isolated on the virtually all-white campuses located in these regions. By contrast, many Latinos joined and were welcomed in Black fraternities because they were not racially exclusive.

At a certain point, however, Latinos who were part of either the Black or traditionally white fraternities or sororities decided that they needed to create their own social and fraternal organizations to preserve their cultural identity.

Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods

In 1986, Rodriguez, along with other Latinos who had been in either Black or traditionally white fraternities, formed Sigma Lambda Beta at the University of Iowa. "Many of the Latinos felt they wanted to contribute to their own communities," says Rodriguez.

Latinos rarely feel comfortable and welcome in the traditionally white fraternities and sororities, says Rodriguez. Except on some campuses in the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico, some of the fraternities actually represent the racial/cultural composition of their campuses. Most fraternities and sororities on other campuses remain elitist and mostly white, he says.

Because they don't want to project the same image as Greek-letter organizations, many of the Latino groups do not refer to themselves as fraternities or sororities or use Greek letters. They refer to themselves as Hermandades (brotherhoods and sisterhoods). An example would be at the University of California at Riverside. There, the Latino fraternal organization is called La Union Estudiantil de La Raza (The People's Student Union). Members refer to it as "Casa de Hermanos" or House of Brothers. Each new class is referred to in an Aztec name such as CIPACTLI, which means crocodile or ECHATL, which means wind in the Nahuatl language. …