History and the people who make it: Ilena Rotundo Camilo

Ilena Rotundo Camilo [C], the Founding Mother of Gamma Eta Sorority, Incorporated, who worked on creating a more inclusive and diverse community on the University of Florida Campus and beyond, was interviewed by an unknown interviewer [U] on July 15, 2018. The sorority was founded in1995.

Transcript edited by Donovan Carter. 

This is an excerpt from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program – Latinx Diaspora of the Americas Project (LDAP) Collection, and the 69th in a series from the SPOHP collection.

U: What gave you the idea to create a sorority on campus? 

C: Well, at the time, the Hispanic population was not as noticeable at the university. I heard over and over that all the Latina girls want to try to fit in somewhere, but it was a bit difficult, and because it was something new and there were more of us than there were before, people weren’t as welcoming as all the other ladies. There wasn’t anything where Hispanic women would fit in. 

I don’t know why, I guess, I was just bored at that time — I said, “Why don’t we do something ourselves and just start a Hispanic sorority?” That’s where the whole idea started coming along. 

U: Where does the name Gamma Eta come from? 

C: I did a lot of research because I wanted to reflect the Hispanic background. I went in the library, and I tried to figure out what each Greek letter meant. I found that Gamma Eta meant “Ray of Light.” 

If you come from a Hispanic background, we all come from heat and sun and positive things and sunshine, and that’s how it came about it, it kind of reflected what we were, you know, our background and as women. We were a ray of light at that moment. 

U: When you were going through this process, was there any faculty or staff that you asked for any advice?

C: I know that the Casita had staff members from the university that were gonna support us, but we needed to come [up] with a plan before we actually got their support. 

I know there was some people in the sorority—well, the beginning of the process—that were trying get some staff from the university to support us and back us up, but some of them wanted us to have a more complete idea of what we wanted to do, and then they kind of led us. 

They told us what we needed to do. I remember having several meetings in the Casita, and, if some of the Hispanic faculty was there, they would guide us. There’s not one specific that I could remember, at this point. 

U: What about the larger administration?

C: We needed to be recognized for them to actually consider us anything. So at that point we had no support. Pretty much, we started like a club. That’s the only way we could have gotten into the university as a registered activity for students. 

So we began as a club, because we had no history. We started volunteering in activities, we started doing fundraisers, and during Christmas we bought toys for kids who were underprivileged. We started as a service club.

U: Were there any other sort of things that you all tried to do?

C: We tried to start putting together the full sorority, but most of the things we did were service. For example, we volunteered at the Disney Marathon. We were there very early, and we led people—the runners—to different places. 

We decided because I had a very close friend—one of my roommates, actually—had lost her mom, we decided that breast cancer awareness was going to be our philanthropy. We started doing some activities for that. We did fundraisers. We collected toys, but pretty much that’s what we did, mostly service, but in the short time period that I had. 

U: Was there anything that helped you to take such a leadership role?

C: I’ve always been very involved in service since high school—I was class treasurer. I was very active, and if I believe in something that is needed, I never back down, and I try to put it together even if I don’t finish it. And that’s been since high school, college, and now through my career. 

It’s something that has always been me, and like I said, I felt that it was something that we needed at that time at the university to have something that we felt that we were a part of and not be discriminated against or felt like we weren’t going to fit in because they didn’t have the same background as we had. 

I just said, “You know what, let’s do this,” and it was something that came natural to me, and still does. It’s something that I’m very proud of, because it’s still continuing, and the girls just keep going strong, so it’s amazing. I’m happy to hear that it’s still going on, because I was very afraid that it would have been just, I left and that was it, but no, everybody that was with me that started continued it, and they did an amazing job.

U: I was doing some research, and there’s a handful of chapters at other schools around the southeast. How does that make you feel?

C: It feels great, and if you were to look at their websites or even their Facebook pages, it’s all about diversity, which is what I always wanted. Even if we were all Hispanic women—it was not necessarily that, it was about if you felt that you didn’t fit in a specific category and you needed somebody to be there for you because of who you are not because of where you’re from, that’s what I wanted as a sorority, and that’s how we started it. 

Even though we were all Hispanic, we were all from different backgrounds. Some were born in our countries, some of them born here in the U.S. And seeing the growth and seeing the diversity, that for me is super great—that’s amazing. 

You know, that it’s not a specific group of people, it’s just a variety and diversity and different cultures coming together and forming a group of amazing women that are strong and hopefully career oriented and moving forward. 

U: How has the time creating the sorority helped you professionally? 

C: I was the president of three organizations after [I] moved from UF. They were more geared towards my beliefs. For example, I’m a special education teacher, I’m a speech therapist, so I was the president of two special education organizations in my university, because that’s what my degree was when I moved to Puerto Rico, and I recently was the principal of a charter school that I and a friend of mine founded. 

I’ve always [kept] moving forward, because it created that support and understanding that if you believe in something and you want to push it forward, you just have to work for it, and it will become something, you know? 

Every year when I see a new chapter and when I see pledges, it’s just amazing, because that’s what I wanted, and it keeps going. I’m really happy to see that. 

U: I know that UF had tried to make it a point to include, make diversity a focal point. If there is anything, that you would like to say about your time here at the university or what the sorority, you kind of talked about what the sorority really meant to you.

C: I would say that even though it was the [19]90s and that’s a long time ago, it doesn’t matter the time period or where we are—you know, if it’s the [19]90s or 2018—it’s what you make of your experience and how you want to portray yourself as a person, what is more important.

Being part of a group of ladies at that time period that were behind me 100 percent because they had the same belief I had, and still to this day they still have the same belief that I had that diversity is very important, that we need to value our culture and our backgrounds and let other people know that we are not less or, we’re the same as everybody else, that’s what it was all about, you know, that we’re people. 

We’re not a race or a color or a size or anything, we are just people, we are women that we wanted to move forward, be recognized for our achievements, not for anything else. 

That’s something that still to this day, through different events or activities I tell Gamma Eta sorority girls that have contacted me about that, and I say, “When I started it, my idea was to have a group of women that were strong in their beliefs, that were from a diverse background, and we were willing to make a difference and show that we can make a difference, not a group of girls that were just there to be pretty and that was it, no, we were there to show that we can in so many different ways, as leaders, as students, and as future people, women, in the work force.” 

That’s what my goal was, and that’s what is still going, and that’s what I like to see. Every time I see all the graduates and their degrees and how they’re getting jobs and being recognized and moving forward, that’s basically what I wanted to see, and that’s what I see every year every time there’s a graduation class from the Gamma Eta Sorority. 

Search for “Ilena Rotundo Camilo” at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/oral for the recording and full transcript of this interview.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program believes that listening carefully to first-person narratives can change the way we understand history, from scholarly questions to public policy. 

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