The number of Latinx students enrolling in higher education has been increasing since 2010. Despite increasing enrollments, underrepresentation in four-year degree attainment persists.1 These trends suggest efforts must focus on the retention of Latinx undergraduates. One intervention has been connecting Latinx students with culture centers to increase a sense of belonging on college campuses and, thus, increase chances of persisting.2,3 However, we know little about how ethnic identity impacts participation at culture centers in the first place, or why some Latinx students do not access culture centers. The relationship between racial/ethnic identity and participation at culture centers is likely reciprocal. Minoritized students with strong racial/ethnic identities are probably the most likely to seek out culture centers, and participation at culture centers likely strengthens racial/ethnic identity. Past studies focus on the latter relationship rather than the former. Using a LatCrit theoretical framework, Dr. Sylvia Martinez and her co-author, Dr. Amy J. Nuñez examine the role that Latinx ethnic identity played in participation at a Latinx cultural center and identified reasons for participation (or lack thereof).
What is the Connection between Latinx Ethnic Identity and Participation at La Casa, a Latinx Cultural Center?
- There is a positive relationship between Latinx ethnic identity and participation at the cultural center; Latinx students with higher scores on our Latinx ethnic centrality measure were more likely to access the center on a weekly or monthly basis compared to Latinx students with lower ethnic centrality scores.
- Many Latinx students use the cultural center to meet with friends, attend events, and hold meetings, suggesting they feel comfortable in this space; some students explicitly note the Latinx cultural center “feels like home.”
- About a third of students report a lack of time and busy schedules as the primary reasons for not accessing La Casa.
- A relatively small but significant percentage of students, such as multiracial Latinx students or non-multiracial Latinx students who do not conform to stereotypical characteristics of Latinxs, fear their ethnic identities will be challenged based on past experiences.
La Casa “feels like home.”
With respect to how Latinx ethnic identity impacts participation at or accessing the Latinx cultural center on campus, results pointed to the fact that La Casa is a place that both affirms and challenges a student’s Latinx ethnic identity. While only 7.1% of students reported that their participation at La Casa was primarily because it “feels like home,” the top three reasons for participating at La Casa (i.e., for events, friends, and meetings) from the survey data suggest that students feel comfortable in this space. Interviews aligned with the survey data; students referenced events and free food as the primary reasons they access La Casa. For other students engaging with La Casa is way to manage the shock that comes from the lack of racial/ethnic diversity at Midwestern University. One sub-theme that arose was that attending Midwestern University was the first time quite a few students realized they were racial/ethnic minorities, since their home communities were either largely Latinx or racially/ethnic diverse.
“I am not Latino enough.”
While La Casa can affirm ethnic identity, it can also challenge it. The reasons most students give for not accessing La Casa include busy schedules (33.3%) and lack of interest (18.8%), but 12.3% of survey respondents noted that they did not feel welcomed at La Casa. While this percentage is not large, it is still significant. Interviews suggested that La Casa can be a place where Latinx ethnic identity is questioned or challenged for those not fitting stereotypical ideas of Latinx identity, especially for multiracial Latinx students. Though many multiracial Latinx students noted challenges navigating this identity at home, many also described themselves as an intersection or blending of cultures, such as a “border identity”4 where identity is grounded in the sense of in-betweenness or a combination of two identities. This border identity appears to be more challenging to maintain on a university campus, whereby other students want to place multiracial Latinx students in narrow racial/ethnic categories. Sometimes multiracial Latinx students have not necessarily had negative experiences at La Casa, but past challenges to their Latinx ethnic identities in their home communities make them fear similar situations will occur on campus.
Past research has touted the benefits of culture centers for integrating racial/ethnic minoritized students on higher education campuses2. This study contributes to this body of work by finding that many Latinx students use the cultural center to meet with friends, attend events, and hold meetings, suggesting they feel comfortable in this space.
What is less understood is why Latinx students might not access a culture center meant to serve them on higher education campuses. For about a third of the students in this study, lack of time and busy schedules are the primary reasons for not accessing La Casa. With rising tuition costs as of late, this finding is not surprising, as students are increasingly taking on employment to offset tuition costs and/or heavy course loads to complete a four-year degree as quickly as possible.5
Our study also shows that culture centers may not be a safe haven for all students. A relatively small, but still significant percentage of students, such as multiracial Latinx students or non-multiracial Latinx students who do not conform to stereotypical characteristics of Latinxs, fear their ethnic identities will be challenged based on past experiences. And some do report direct challenges to their identities when engaging with the Latinx cultural center. We do not believe this to be an inherently negative side of culture centers. Instead, we find that culture centers are simply microcosms of our larger society, which tends to rely on essentialist notions of what it means to be “Latinx.”
Table 1: Weekly and monthly participation at La Casa by Latinx ethnic centrality
Did not visit this past week
5 or more times
Did not visit last month
10 or more times
1. U.S. Census, 2020. Educational attainment in the United States: 2019. Washington, DC: US Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/educational-attainment.html
2. Lozano, A. (2010). Latina/o culture centers: Providing a sense of belonging and promoting student success. In L. Patton (Ed.), Culture centers in high education: Perspectives on identity, theory, and practice (pp. 3-22). Sterling, VA: Stylus.
3. Lozano, A. (2019). Anchor and launching pad: The role of a Latino culture center for Latinx college student success at a historically White institution. Future Review: International Journal of Transition, College, and Career Success, 1(2), 19-28.
4. Rockquemore, K. A. (1998). Between Black and White: Exploring the “biracial” experience. Race & Society, 1(2), 197-212.
5. Perna, L. W., & Odle, T. K. (2020). Recognizing the reality of working college students: Minimizing the harm and maximizing the benefits of work. Retrieved from https://www.aaup.org/article/recognizing-reality-working-college-students#.YY6WZC2cbs0
Meet the Researcher
Sylvia Martinez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, and the Latino Studies Program. She also serves as the Director for the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society (CRRES). Dr. Martinez’s research examines Latinx ethnic identity development generally, and within the context of cultural centers on college campuses.