by CALLIE HARKINS
In the first major event hosted in celebration of Latino Identities Month, the UMW Latino Student Association and the James Farmer Multicultural Center welcomed Rachel Gomez for a presentation and discussion titled “Racial Recognition and Community Practices.” The event took place on Thursday, Sept. 21—one week into the month-long celebration that presents various events from Sept. 15 to Oct. 5.
Gomez is an assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University and the president of the Richmond Region Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens. She received a Ph.D. in Mexican-American Studies from the University of Arizona and now studies the effects of race in education.
“Until we can no longer predict educational outcomes based on race, we have a racism problem; we have a white supremacy problem,” she said.
Specializing in education and its relation with race, parts of Gomez’s presentation focused on an incident that took place at a public school in Richmond in April of this year. The exchange occurred between a sixth grader and a teacher, who berated the student for speaking Spanish and said, “Go back to wherever that Spanish-speaking country is.” The interaction was recorded and circulated via social media.
“A teacher cannot tell a child that they cannot speak their language in the classroom,” said Gomez. “They can’t tell them they can’t speak it in the hallway, on the playground, on the bus.”
She asserted that it is the duty of educators to ensure students’ rights are being recognized in the classroom and in all academic settings.
“As adults who are working with children and educating children, it is our responsibility to uphold those rights and protect them,” she said.
Immediately following the April incident, Gomez rallied members of the Richmond Region Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens to voice their discontent with the Richmond School Board and show support for the student. Gomez reaffirmed the importance of advocacy throughout her presentation.
“Doing nothing is upholding white supremacy. Doing nothing is turning a blind eye to racism. Doing nothing is ‘what happened to that little girl is not my problem,’ ‘what happened to my neighbor is not my problem,’” she said.
Without confronting these issues, she said, progress cannot be made.
“The gist is if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t understand it, if we don’t name the things, the people, the agencies and institutions that are doing the harm and the people are being harmed, then we’re not moving forward, we’re just talking in circles,” she said.
Gomez emphasized the importance of organizations like the Latino Student Association and grassroots advocacy to support underrepresented communities.
“Our kids are missing out. Generations and generations and generations of Americans do not know history. They don’t know it, we have a colonial view,” she said.
Luisa Restrepo, president of the Latino Student Association and a senior communication and digital studies major, hopes Gomez’s discussion, as well as the other events planned for the remainder of the month, will help educate the campus community on topics they may not have previously known about.
“The benefit of hosting speakers like Dr. Gomez is that we get to educate other students, faculty, and the broader community about issues that are important to bring awareness and shine a light on and affect our community,” she said.
In addition to the discussion with Gomez, the UMW Latino Student Association is hosting a series of events until Oct. 5. According to Restrepo, they have been planning for this month’s events since June.
“We have a donation drive with the Fredericksburg Food Bank. We also have two educational panels, the Melting Pot dinner with the UC and Sabor Latino, which is our second biggest event where we have performers from the area come and we’re also getting that catered by a local Hispanic vendor,” she said.
Members of the Latino Student Association Executive Board emphasize the importance of community. Restrepo states that the club is for everyone and aims to serve as a safe and welcoming space.
“It definitely helped me get out of my comfort zone, because I think coming here as a freshman, I was very nervous and I knew I had to put myself out there,” said senior psychology major and treasurer of Latino Student Association, Casandra Flores. “I think LSA helped me do that and I got to get closer to faculty at UMW as well as other students. It’s made a big change in my experience here.”
Charlie Li contributed to reporting for this article.