An Organization by Any Other Name.Controversy Flares over University of New Mexico's Centro De la Raza

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An Organization By Any Other Name...Controversy Flares Over University of. New Mexico's Centro de la Raza

One of the promises Veronica Cruz made when taking over the helm at Hispanic Student Services at the University of New Mexico (UNM) a few years ago was to change the name of the center. As of this academic year, it is now "Centro de la Raza." But along with the name change has come controversy.

Literally translated, "Centro de la Raza" means "the center for the race." However, a more appropriate and accurate translation is the "People's Center" or the "Center of the People," said Cruz, adding that the controversy arose because many of the center's detractors are not familiar with the concept of "La Raza" or with the actual translation.

"The biggest source of conflict comes from people who are ignorant of what `La Raza' means and how it's defined. The biggest critics are those who don't take the time to find out," she said.

In the 1920s, Mexican educator Jose Vasconcellos developed the concept of "La Raza Cosmica" -- A Cosmic People. In this concept, Vasconcellos points out that the Mexican people have indigenous roots, which are presumed to be Asian, and that when the Spaniards came to the Americas, Mexicans mixed both with Europeans and Africans, thus producing a cosmic race -- a mixture of all the peoples of the world. Over the years, Cruz explained, "La Raza" has simply come to mean "people."

In recognition of this mixture, October 12 in Mexico -- and throughout Latin America -- is celebrated not as Columbus Day, but as "Dia de La Raza" or Day of the People, said Eliseo Torres, vice president of student affairs.

Racist and Exclusionary?

The controversy began at the beginning of the academic year. The New Mexico Association of Scholars, which has since found other allies, considers the name racist or exclusionary. Demanding that the center change its name, the detractors have taken steps to force the university to take action.

Richard Bertholz, a member of the association, has written in the Daily Lobo (the campus newspaper) that the controversy isn't simply about the name. He stated that at a public university, there is no place for El Centro de la Raza, or the American Indian and the African American Student Services centers at the university. Those centers, he maintains, discriminate against white students.

Torres, who endorsed the name change, said that the controversy is based on a misunderstanding of the language and culture of Mexicans, Mexican Americans and other Hispanics/Latinos groups.

"It's a term that brings people together. The Centro is there for the students and it is the students who recommended the name change. The complaints have come mainly from non-students. We're here to be sensitive as to what students want...it's their university," explained Torres.

A Feeling of Comfort

The change came about because students did not feel comfortable with the previous name, according to Cruz. After a nomination process and election, students chose "Centro Estudiantil de la Raza Unida." However, because of its length, it was eventually shortened to its current name, "Centro de la Raza."

While some Mexican American and Hispanic students oppose the new name, most of the students who utilize the center feel comfortable with it, according to Cruz. The name, she said, is similar to other UNM student organizations, i.e.; La Raza Estudiantil and La Raza en Accion.

The main function of the centers is retention and recruitment, said Cruz, noting that as in the rest of the country, all three groups are under-represented. …