Unidad Leads Wheaton’s Celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month

After a month of festivities, Latino students are hoping that Hispanic Heritage Month increases awareness of issues in the Latino community.

By Noah Cassetto | Freelance Contributor
October 15, 2021
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The majority of worship during Unidad chapel is in Spanish to open up a space of belonging for the Latinx student community and all communities who value genuine and personal expression of worship. Photo: Sanya Holm.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Latino students at Wheaton College joined together to celebrate their heritage at a number of on-campus events organized by Unidad Cristiana (Christian Unity), a student-led group for Latino students. From dances and concerts to festivals and chapel, Hispanic Heritage Month provided opportunities for Wheaton’s Latino students to celebrate while giving non-Latino students a chance to learn about Hispanic culture.

 

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated in the U.S. every Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. President Lyndon B. Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 to celebrate Latino persons in the U.S. Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan expanded the celebration to cover an entire month. This time frame includes the independence days of many Latin American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua on September 15, Mexico on September 16 and Chile on September 18. Hispanic Heritage Month often entails days of celebration for many Latino people in the U.S.

 

The cabinet members of Unidad Cristiana, which goes by Unidad, organized a slate of new events to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month on campus. Founded more than 30 years ago, Unidad’s mission statement says that the group seeks to “[empower] all students of Latino backgrounds to explore, develop, and express their ethnic identity in Christ” and “to create awareness and appreciation for the diversity of Latino cultures in the larger Wheaton Community.” According to data gathered by the Office of Institutional Research, 192 students at Wheaton identify their ethnicity as Hispanic. 

 

Monik Flores, a senior English major and president of Unidad Cristiana, said that at the core of every event her group organized for the month lay a deep commitment to highlighting Latino students and faculty on campus while inviting non-Latino people to learn about the Latino experience through immersion with traditional music, food, dance, and fellowship.

 

“We exist to provide community to Latinx students and celebrate our culture with the greater Wheaton College community,” she said. “We’re trying to make Latino students feel at home and expose non-Latino students to the beauty that is ‘Latinidad’ and the diversity within it.” 

 

On September 25, Unidad hosted a dance called Bajo las Estrellas, which means “Under the Stars,” at Edman Plaza. The event was filled with Latino music and traditional dancing, including salsa, merengue and bachata. Heather Hernandez ‘01 and her husband taught dance routines to students during the first hour and a half of the dance, while the remaining hour and a half was open floor. Unidad sold 128 tickets for Bajo las Estrellas, with over 100 bought in advance, the proceeds from which contributed to the club’s later events.

Dancers and instructors pose after a successful night of dancing. Credit: Martha Ann Langdon.

Monik Flores and vice president Sienna Oates hoped that the night would provide a light and fun environment for non-Latino students.

 

“In my knowledge, Unidad has never done Latin dances before that include Latin instruction,” said Monik Flores. “We figured [Bajo las Estrellas] would be a good way to celebrate [Latino] culture and actively involve people within our family here.”

“I love Latino dancing,” said Nohemi Pino, a Latina sophomore studying Bible and Theology. “I used to be part of a dance group when I was younger. It was fun; it brings me back to my roots and it’s cool to see people learning.” 

 

On October 2, the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month continued with Mercado y Música, which means “Market and Music.” From 3:00 to 7:00 p.m, about a dozen Latino-owned businesses from the Chicagoland area set up shop in Coray Gymnasium.

 

Vendors such as Chicago Plant Shop and Crema were in attendance, offering students a look at Latino-owned businesses around Wheaton. Throughout the afternoon, a quartet featuring a piano, upright bass and traditional Mexican instruments played Spanish songs in the background as attendees moved from table to table. 

 

Sofia Flores, a sophomore studying Business and Economics and the younger sister of Monik, helped coordinate Mercado y Música. She contacted many of the businesses through social media and family connections to gauge their interest.

 

“My hope is to establish a LatinX presence on this campus and for people to get an immersive experience while also celebrating and getting exposure to LatinX businesses. I think having students come and engage with the culture is something that everyone can enjoy together,” said Sofia Flores.

 

Oates, a junior studying community art and missions, described events like Baja las Estrellas and Mercado y Música as a chance for non-Latino students to express their support for the Latino community at Wheaton.

 

“Events like these are a time for everyone, students of color and white students, to be together and celebrate,” said Oates. “There are times to have hard conversations and engage in the work, but this is just a fun night.”

 

Another Hispanic Heritage Month event was the Unidad Chapel on Oct. 6, the group’s first chapel since a controversial Instagram post about their 2019 chapel service created tension in the Wheaton College community two years ago. After a Wheaton student posted an offensive joke about Unidad’s remarks in their September 2019 chapel, many Latino students found themselves having to defend their cultural identity while their struggles were ignored or exacerbated by other students on campus.

In their messages to the student body during their recent Oct. 6 chapel, Unidad cabinet members again articulated the rejection and hurt they have experienced because of their ethnicity. The speakers focused on John 8:48-59 in which the Pharisees challenge Jesus’s assertion that he is the Son of God. Members of Unidad as well as members of the chapel band led bilingual worship. 

 

Junior math major Julio Reyes, Unidad’s chaplain, was one of the Latino students who spoke in chapel about the pain that he has felt as a Latino student at Wheaton.

Lively worship during Unidad chapel. Photo: Sanya Holm

Reyes and others said that they feel the College has been slow to support the Latino community, even during the celebration of Latino people in Hispanic Heritage Month. Oates is one of the students advocating for people to listen to the Latino community’s struggles and support them. She also spoke in chapel.

 

“The experiences of so many students of color here reveal that this campus needs John 8:48-59—a call to lay down self-righteousness, prejudice, and what we think about how Jesus will transform our lives,” said Oates in her message. “One really practical way of doing this is listening to the students of color on our campus and believing them. My hope is that you—my beautiful brown brothers and sisters—are affirmed in your walk with God and your right to belong in this space. Our Christian community at Wheaton is not just enriched by your presence, it would be incomplete without your presence.”

 

The impact of Hispanic Heritage Month at Wheaton went beyond students. Latino professors also said they hoped the celebration of Latino voices on campus would go beyond Hispanic Heritage Month.

 

In an email to the Record, Carlos Sosa, a Latino professor who teaches Bible and theology, commented on the importance of Unidad’s chapel message and highlighted the unique perspective toward worship and the Bible that multicultural students can offer. 

 

“My prayer is that the wonderful experience of singing in Spanish will spark conversations about what it means to live and worship in multicultural and multilingual contexts, that the Unidad chapel speakers’ bold testimonies of faithful commitment to Jesus will deepen our understanding of the meaning of the Church as the body of Christ and that their insightful exegesis of the Gospel of John will educate us about how to read and interpret Scripture better,” said Sosa.

 

Despite these challenges, many Latino students believe that the Wheaton College community is equipped with the tools it needs to come together and celebrate Latino heritage. Zuri Morales, a sophomore who attended Bajo las Estrellas, said that the campus community should learn about and amplify Latino voices in order to better foster a welcoming environment for Latinos.

Sienna Oates speaks from John 8:48-59 about belonging and the conflict of identity. Photo: Claire Feeney.

“We need to look at the people and their stories, the people and their struggles,” said Morales. “We need to elevate their voices, especially on a campus like Wheaton that claims to follow Jesus’s ministry. The best way to celebrate Latino people and Hispanics beyond Hispanic Heritage Month is to become educated about our stories, to give us a chance to share our history.” 

 

Sosa highlighted the unique role that faculty can play in amplifying Latino voices, emphasizing the research of many Latino academics.

“The role of faculty is very important,” he said. “Sometimes students realize that their own teachers have never interacted with Latin American or Latino and Latina scholars in their published research.”

 

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, Oates says she is adamant that Wheaton still has work to do to create a truly inclusive environment for students of color. However, in her message during the Oct. 6 chapel, she expressed confidence that Wheaton’s Chaplain’s Office is on the right track.

 

“We need the celebration of all cultures represented by our student body to be a regular rhythm,” said Oates. “Our recognition of students of color at Wheaton cannot stop at once a year heritage month celebrations. But I am grateful for the true commitment and support the Chaplain’s Office has expressed in making this a rhythm and diversifying our chapel every year.”

 

More than anything else, Unidad and other Latino people on campus are hoping that Hispanic Heritage Month is just the beginning for further conversations, events and celebrations of the Latino community. 

 

“Don’t think we’re done just because Hispanic Heritage Month is over,” said Monik Flores.

Wheaton College, IL

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