La Casa Latina is home.
For 20 years, the Center for Hispanic Excellence has been a home away from home for Penn’s Latinx students, a calming and inviting place where they can hang out, study, relax, unwind, recharge, converse, cry, be themselves, and be at peace.
A great deal of the students who utilize La Casa are away from their parents for the first time, especially those from foreign countries or outside the Northeast.
“It’s not easy to go and see your parents every time you have a break or a weekend,” says Maritza Santiago-Torres, office manager at La Casa who has been at the Center since it was founded in 1999. “They get homesick and it’s a struggle for a lot of them. We can create here an environment that makes them feel, ‘OK, you’re away from your family but we’re here to support you no matter what. If you need to cry, we’ll close the door and cry together.’ We figure out whatever they need to make them feel better.”
Such was the case with Kareli Lizarraga, associate director of La Casa and an alumna who attended from 2009-13.
Before she even enrolled at Penn, she says La Casa was the only campus organization from any of the schools she applied to that sent a letter in Spanish directly to her parents.
“My parents don’t speak English fluently, so that was huge,” Lizarraga says. “That was like the first time that I didn’t have to translate something for my parents. And for my parents—I’m from Arizona—it was really nice to know that their daughter was going to be in a place where, if there’s an emergency, they can call.”
During her junior year, Lizarraga’s grandfather passed away in Mexico. La Casa was the first place she came to after she heard the news.
“I wanted to be in the space that was as close to family as possible, so I came here,” she says.
Santiago-Torres, who Lizarraga calls her “second mom,” and Johnny Irizarry, director of La Casa, comforted and consoled her, and told her she should go home and be with her mother. She told them she couldn’t afford a plane ticket; they got one for her and she was on a plane the next day, headed to Arizona to be with her mom and dad.
When Lizarraga’s parents met Santiago-Torres and Irizarry for the first time following Commencement, she says her parents gave them a hug because they had heard so much about them.
“I think for students and for families that are Latinx, a place like Penn can often feel very foreign and very inaccessible,” Lizarraga says. “I think La Casa really makes all of us feel like we do belong here, there is a space that was by us and for us.”
One score and five years ago
The origins of La Casa Latina date back to 1994, when a group of Latinx faculty and staff established the Latino Faculty and Staff Association, and Latinx student groups began meeting and promoting like-minded ideas.
In 1998, Latinx students, faculty, and staff worked on a proposal for a center designed to increase the presence of the Latinx community at Penn. On Oct. 30, 1998, the proposal was presented to President Judith Rodin.
On Sept. 21, 1999, President Rodin inaugurated La Casa Latina, which was originally housed at 37th and Chestnut streets in the building that is currently occupied by the Christian Association.
In the early days of the Center, Santiago-Torres says it was difficult to get students to show up to La Casa. At the time, she worked part-time in another department and would run during lunchtime to staff the Center.
“Everything was new,” she says. “Everybody had great expectations about the future of this project, but it was difficult, especially in that location, to let students know that we started business.”
When La Casa moved into the ARCH Building at 3601 Locust Walk in 2000, its popularity increased. Members of MEChA, a Chicana/o student organization, began coming to the Center. Santiago-Torres and her part-time assistant held barbeques and developed a newsletter to increase publicity, and also adopted and expanded programs that were already put in place by student groups, such as Latinx Heritage Month celebrations.
A two-year, $24.5 million restoration of the ARCH Building, which concluded in 2014, dramatically upgraded La Casa in quality and shared space, adding improved technology, additional square footage, a lounge, and offices.
Rarely today is the Center not filled with students at work, rest, or play. Since 2000, La Casa has hosted an annual toast and celebration for graduating seniors and their parents after Commencement. Lizarraga says each year, they invite students to say a few words and a large number of students have stated: “Thank you to La Casa, and for the couches, the sofas. I took so many naps in-between classes.”
Where the heart is
Friday evening, on Sept. 20, a diverse blend of the University community gathered together in Bodek Lounge in Houston Hall to celebrate Latinx Heritage Month and La Casa Latina’s 20th anniversary with good food, thoughtful speakers, and dancing.
“La Casa is really near and dear to my heart, as it is for I’m sure everyone here,” she said. “It gives me great, great honor to be able to stand here today and be able to celebrate the 20th anniversary of a place that has really made Penn feel like home for me.”
The Rev. William Gipson, who oversees La Casa as associate vice provost for equity and access, thanked the Center for being here for Penn students and for the University.
“Most people get the student part of it,” he said. “Yes, it’s a home away from home for students who identify with the Latinx heritage. But Penn is better because of La Casa Latina.”
Vicky Kuora, a 2013 alumna and president of the Penn chapter of the Association of Latino Alumni, recalled being a young student at Penn, walking into the ARCH Building for the first time, and strolling down the hallway into La Casa, at the time a tiny office in the corner that could barely fit seven or eight people at once.
“Immediately, even in that small space, [I felt] this immense sense of love, and support, and family,” she said. “It’s absolutely incredible to me that after all these years, that space has grown out tremendously. It’s filled with more love, it’s bigger, it’s brighter, it’s more colorful, but more importantly, it’s filled with more students and alumni that grow our family together every day here at Penn.”
La Casa Latina’s annual Dolores Huerta Lecture featured keynotes Gilbert Casellas, a 1977 alumnus of Penn Law School, former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and an Emeritus Trustee of the University, and Wendy De La Rosa, a 2011 graduate of the Wharton School and co-founder of the Common Cents Lab.
Casellas, who supported La Casa’s creation as a Trustee, said the founders of the Center unknowingly created an institution, and he implored the audience to think about themselves and how they can help to create institutions.
“The folks who established La Casa 20 years ago turned it over to you in a sense as stewards,” he said. “And it’s up to you to maintain it, make it stronger, and pass it along to the next generation better than you found it.”
Echoing Gibson, Casellas told the assembled Latinx students that they are as much a part of Penn as everyone else.
“One of things that I want you to know is that you’re not just part of a great university; this is a great university because you’re here,” he said. “Think about that every day as you go about what you do.”
De La Rosa was a researcher at Wharton, a private equity investor at Goldman Sachs, and founded the Behavioral Economics Group at Google before co-founding the Common Cents Lab, which aims to improve the financial lives of low- to moderate-income individuals by helping them make better financial decisions using social science.
She told her inspiring life story of growing up in the Dominican Republic and New York City, where she lived in a tiny apartment with many of her relatives. Although she was the valedictorian of every school she attended and got accepted into Wharton, she was overcome with self-doubt when she arrived on campus her freshman year.
Homesick and unsure of herself, she called her mother and told her she wanted to come home, but her mother told her to go talk to the folks at La Casa Latina.
“The next day, I walked into La Casa and saw a bunch of people laughing, smiling, dancing,” she said. “I saw my identify being celebrated. I saw Maritza giving hugs. And it felt like home.”
Homepage photo: On Locust Walk on Sept. 13, Latinx students, faculty, and staff march in La Casa Latina’s Latinx Heritage Month Cultural Procession.