Celebrating 40 years
As UIC’s Mariachi Fuego marched across campus Wednesday, a diverse group of students followed to dance, Snapchat and applaud.
The band was headed to the Rafael Cintrón Ortiz Latino Cultural Center’s 40th anniversary celebration. Upon arrival, the group who followed the musicians joined the large audience gathered outside the center.
“You never know how many people are going to show up,” said Rosa Cabrera, director of the Latino Cultural Center. “We were thinking maybe 200, maybe 300, but [student volunteers] thought that from the time we opened until the end, 500 people came through.”
Among the crowd, Chancellor Michael Amiridis and Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” Garcia showed support for a center that has given Latina/o students a space to grow and learn.
“Being at the cultural center exposed me to lots of things,” Garcia, who graduated from UIC, said during the celebration. “Great friendships. New ideas. Radical ideas. Conservative ideas. The cultural center was that place that brought everyone together to enrich ourselves.”
Garcia has been involved with the center since its inception. As an undergraduate in 1973, he participated in the bold action to occupy University Hall’s Office of the Chancellor to try and get the center started. The sit-in resulted in the arrest of 39 students, staff and community members.
The struggle for the cultural center didn’t end until 1976, when it opened in a small locker room in University Hall. It was named after Rafael Cintrón Ortiz, a UIC professor from Puerto Rico who connected with students over many social justice issues. He died at just 29 years old.
In the early 1980s, the center moved to Lecture Center B2 and has thrived ever since — hosting visitors such as 1989 Mexican presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú.
“This center has always been that safe, welcoming place for everyone,” Garcia said. “When people have come to the cultural center, they have left here transformed.”
To celebrate the rich history and continued excellence of the cultural center, the anniversary featured powerful poetry, music and art under an outdoor tent. Student volunteers dished out Mexican empanadas, Puerto Rican sorullitos de maiz and tamales oaxaqueños inside.
Students in attendance talked about the center’s important role in their UIC experience.
“This is where my UIC journey began,” said Cesar Diaz-Ortiz, a senior in sociology. “It’s a special place in my heart where we can come and be comfortable.”
“It’s my home away from home,” said Stephanie Marin, a junior in Latin American and Latino studies.
The tight-knit community is important to Cabrera and staff members, too.
“It is always an honor for someone to call the place that you come to work every day a home,” Cabrera said. “I think the common thread is that we found a space in this huge campus where we could form and maintain community.”