“Welcome to our new space,” says Josmell Perez as he proudly greets visitors to the walk-through of the site of the UNC Latinx Center, which will officially open its doors just prior to the Fall 2019 semester. Perez has been at the helm of the Carolina Latinx Collaborative for nearly a decade while it incubated within the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). Now he will see the fruits of his labor – and that of students, faculty and staff – ripen as the CLC morphs into the UNC Latinx Center, where he will serve as its director.
Josmell takes guests on a tour of what will be the ample student workroom, offices and other spaces at the new digs, located in the Abernethy Hall space vacated by the American Indian Center (which moved to Wilson Street in early 2019). As he moves past some of the eager students helping to decorate the vast student space, pointing out the easy accessibility to campus at this more central location, he shares the history of the CLC and how it became a full-fledged center.
“[Initially,] a space was created at Craige North Residential Hall through a partnership with Housing and Residential Life and D&I,” he recalls. “Part of my time with D&I (then called Diversity & Multicultural Affairs) was dedicated to managing and leading the Collaborative. As the Collaborative grew in size, programming and impact, so did my role in overseeing it.”
The CLC was a home for the Latinx community on campus, providing an outlet for events and a space for students to organize and for faculty connect with students and the community at large. Invited speakers also used the space. In addition, it filled a need that was not provided elsewhere. “The CLC started a much needed Latinx Mentoring Program to fill a gap that wasn’t being met on campus,” says Josmell.
Josmell also became a de facto member of the faculty recruiting team, welcoming candidates to campus when they came to visit or interview. “I would answer their questions and showcase Carolina. Through the CLC’s efforts, several Latinx faculty were successfully recruited to UNC.”
In addition to these services, all of the central organizing for events scheduled during Latinx Heritage Month have been done through the CLC. The development and growth of the annual LHM celebrations have been among the CLC’s most successful events. “LHM has been a resounding success as a result of the invited speakers we have been able to bring to campus for the LHM Lecture. People like civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, and Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony winner Rita Moreno have come to Carolina and really resonated with the community here,” Josmell notes, adding, “We have our own homegrown superstars at UNC, too. We’ve showcased celebrated faculty members like Professor Paul Cuadros and his television series Los Jets, which was produced by Jennifer Lopez.”
In spite of the CLC’s success, limitations were felt almost from the outset. “The space at Craige North wasn’t ideal because it had restrictions. It was a shared space that we had to reserve whenever we used it…although it did allow for murals of original artwork by Latinx artists and faculty to display and share with the campus community,” says Josmell. “We made the most of our space and our opportunity, but always had our sights set on becoming a Center.
The CLC continued to create programs and services that were necessary for students and faculty, such as the aforementioned Latinx Mentoring Program and LHM, as well as Exitos, the Latinx Alumni Reunion and more. At the same time, they pushed to have the Collaborative be autonomous and overseen by Latinx leaders on campus—and to have control over its own budget and destiny. The demand for a dedicated Latinx Center grew louder over time, including demonstrations by students. Ron Bilbao (’10) recalls, “This all started in a small room of believers back in 2007. These were students – mostly Latina/o, but not exclusively – who believed that Carolina had room to grow and that we could build something to nurture and embrace this emerging university community.”
Building on that, in 2013, a movement was started by the Collaborative to test the waters in terms of elevating it to the capacity of Center. Josmell recalls, “It was plain that we needed to grow and that the existing structure was inhibiting our ability to do so. A Latinx Center had now become imperative on campus.”
Faculty responded favorably. “When I first heard of an effort to establish a Latinx Center, I knew I had to lend all my energies behind this effort to create a home for our people,” recalls Professor Paul Cuadros, who is one of the visitors celebrating the new office. “Back then, there was nothing for Latinx students, faculty and staff. No presence. No space. No voice. That had to change! We were too big, too loud and growing too fast to be denied. So, [our attitude was] ‘Pass out the shovels and let’s start digging!’ And together, we did. So many hands and minds were behind this effort to set our place at our school.”
In 2014, a committee comprised of faculty, students and staff was formed and led by Paul to petition the UNC Administration to create a Latinx Center. Approvals fell into place on every level, though there were several fits and starts along the way, for a whole host of reasons. The UNC Latinx Center was approved by the Board of Trustees in January by a unanimous vote.
The elevated profile of the Center and the new space will make a huge impact on the amount and quality of programming, events, resources and support that Josmell and his staff will be able to provide to Carolina’s Latinx community. A long time in coming, this is a gift that he cherishes.
In the vestibule of the Abernethy location, Josmell says, “There were dark days, but we all knew the sun would shine out all the clearer one day. That day is here. The foundation has been laid…now, we need to build the future. Si, se puede! [Yes, you can!]”
By Adrianne Gibilisco