History and the people who make it: Vanessa Carlo-Miranda

Vanessa Carlo-Miranda [C], UF graduate & co-founder of La Casita, was interviewed by Genesis Lara [L] in October, 2013.

This is the 43rd in a series of transcript excerpts from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program collection at the University of Florida.

Transcript edited by Pierce Butler.

C: I was born in Puerto Rico and I had a great childhood. My older sister came to study in the States, then I came to the University of Florida, and my younger sister went to FIU. We were very privileged, that we went to a school where they expected women to go to college.

In the beginning, I was like every other freshman. You’re trying to figure things out. Back then you don’t register online. You had to stand in line and you had a Scantron, and hope that by the time your turn came, the class was still available. And if it wasn’t you have to find out what the next choice and get up at five o’clock in the morning and be first in line.

I was probably prepared to not stress too much for a couple of reasons. One, I had family nearby, and they would pick me up and I would get home-cooked meals and do laundry. That was a huge factor for me. The other thing is you start meeting people of your own culture and there’s this immediate gravitation. This group of Latino students, we became like a family to each other; we would cook together, we would have big dinners, and we became our little support network. We were all studying different things. There were engineers and architects—I think I was the only liberal arts person—and everybody had their own world, but we knew we could come home to a group of people that could help out.

L: Outside of your group of friends, was there a strong student Latino community here?

C: No. When I first came to the University of Florida, there was probably about fifteen hundred or less Latino students. We started working with the recruitment office. By the time I left, the numbers had close to doubled.

L: Why did you become involved with helping recruit Latino students to UF?

C: I had a roommate, Livia Rodriguez, a graduate student. Livia had this very clear notion about the fact that, in the state of Florida, there was a huge Latino population, but one of the best schools the state had to offer didn’t mirror the population of the state. As a public institution, that was troubling.

L: Did you face any difficulties because you were Latina at UF?

C: I can’t think of specific things. I definitely felt more so as a woman, and then a woman of color, that this was a man’s world.

There were definitely black brown issues. The African American community didn’t quite understand what was happening with the Latino community, the Latino community was very conservative and they didn’t care to negotiate or work with the African American community. That didn’t help. Student affairs would show me all these things happening for African American students, and there was little to nothing about Latino students. There weren’t any opportunities for us, other than the ones we created for ourselves.

L: I think the Cuban American Students Association started in the [19]80s, and Hispanic Student Association started around that time, too—

C: They definitely had a place on campus and they used to get funded and they would welcome Latino students. But they were extremely conservative. So when we got involved in trying to get La Casita, they were like, how far are you going to go? And we’re like, however far we need to. They’re like, oh no, we’re not going to march or do sit-ins or any of that stuff. If you look at the mission of La Casita, you’re not going to find words like advocacy or social justice in there. We never in a million years would have been able to get the support of H.S.A. if we started talking in those terms. If we were going to get support from Latino students—and they didn’t even want to be called Latino or Hispanic—that we had to change the tone. So as far as it was cultural, people would back us up. The minute we started talking about advocacy, they want nothing to do with it.

L: In what ways do we need advocacy?

C: Working with the recruitment office and the student affairs office you start listening about how Latino students in high schools get canceled out, and they don’t take the right courses, so then they don’t have the credits to come to college. Then you start hearing about the students that do come in, but then they end up leaving. Why is that? When you started realizing the patterns, you couldn’t help but say there’s something wrong here.

L: Do you think that Latino students today still face those issues?

C: Now I’ve spent a lot of time in education, and we have a lot of challenges. The Pew Hispanic Center has been tracking graduation rates – four-year college, two-year college, and post-graduate statistics. Things have improved, but they were so bad that the improvements are just small steps.

L: Were there any other student organizations that you were a part of?

C: Yeah. We created UEPA, Union de Estudiantes Puertorriquenos Activos. I used to tell them, please, can we just come up with a short name? Institute of Hispanic-Latino Cultures, mouthful. Union de Estudiantes Puertorriquenos Activos, mouthful. We want to [be] politically correct so we always got these big names. But we wanted UEPA and so that’s how we ended up.

L: What motivated you all to start that group?

C: Culture, right? It’s what makes you feel comfortable, this is where I came from. I learned more about Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture since I left the island. I learned more about American history and politics when I was in school in Puerto Rico than I did about Puerto Rican culture and history and politics.

There are so many different types of Latinos in the U.S, that if we’re going to speak about one culture, we’ve got to educate ourselves. What does it mean to be Latino in the United States, who are the different Latinos in the United States, and what are the issues affecting the Latino? A professor at the Center for Latin American Studies did a seminar on Latinos in the U.S. We flocked to her class. A visiting professor from California did a whole class on Chicano studies, the Zoot Suit Riots, and all these things that as a Puerto Rican in the island I never heard of.

One of the things that we wanted to see happen as part of this process of creating La Casita was a program of Latino Studies. We had a great Center for Latin American Studies, but there was no Latino Studies and there is a big difference between those two. We were trying to push for that but it never got off the ground. There are lots of great Latino Studies programs out there and it’s really valuable.

L: Why was it important that you had this space at La Casita?

C: As we were getting involved and more students were coming, we find out that this building was going to be vacated and that the administration had not figured out what to do with it. We put proposals together to say, this is what we want this place to be. But we had to work hard at defining the concept. There was an Institute of Black Culture, so we would borrow from that, but we were trying to figure out, what does it mean to us and what do we want it to be?

We wanted this to be a home away from home for Latino students. There’s always been this notion that Latino students don’t go to college because they don’t want to be far away from family. If you’re serious about attracting Latino students, you need to offer a place that’s going to be their home away from home and that’s going to be a key retention issue. The opportunity was there, and we fought really hard for it.

It was about a year-long process—probably got started in [19]92, [19]93. It was very political: four people sitting together, hashing this out, putting it on paper. There was a Hispanic Faculty Association and the president, Fernando Fagundo, who was a civil engineer—he’s like, we’ll support you. We had support and guidance from faculty members and Latino administrators, and that was helpful.

The university never in a million years would do this on their own. This had to come from a pressure point. We started internal and external advocacy. I was on the external advocacy part. Livia and some other students started building relationships with students from the Institute of Black Culture, with Student Government, Women’s Center, different places. They started creating coalitions and telling them, look, we really want your support on this.

On my end, we sent letters and calls to Tallahassee, Washington D.C, to national civil rights organizations like the National Puerto Rican Coalition and the National Council of La Raza, L.U.L.A.C. We just wrote the world and we said, look, we’re fighting for this and we want you to support us. And they did! They started writing letters to the president. So we did our homework to package it together. I met with people in Tallahassee and explained to them why funding was important.

We worked really hard on creating the illusion that we had lots of people fighting for this, when in reality, it was a small group. We were very passionate, and we had this fire in our belly and we knew that we needed this and this would be important. Everybody else just saw that level of energy and it scared them a little bit. They knew that the Institute of Black Culture came about through sit-ins and protests, and they were wanting to distance themselves from that.

We would have these clandestine meetings where we would ask, hey, who’s on board, who’s not, what are we willing to do, what are we not willing to do, how many can we can get on board? We quickly realized there was no support here to do anything other than go to a few meetings, stand up and say, yes, we are in support of this, and maybe write a few letters. So we had to work hard on the outside pressure point.

The President of the university at the time, Dr. John Lombardi, was bilingual, he loved Latin American culture, and I believe that that also played a role. But we had to make lots and lots of connections to make that happen.

Looking at it twenty years later, I don’t think I would have ever dreamed everything you guys have done here. We knew that it would be something that would be here for a long time, but to see what every generation of student has done with this place and how much you guys have been taking it to the next level … The first time I heard the words, my home away from home, I mean my eyes were like—well, that’s what we said, right?

Editors’ note: Both La Casita and the Institute for Black Culture were torn down by UF in August 2017; new offices for both organizations have been promised, but the buildings are gone.

Search for “Vanessa Carlo-Miranda” at http://oral.history.ufl.edu for the full transcript of this interview (not online at this writing).

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