Latino student body presidents at NU, U of C represent trend

Jodi Genshaft and Jodi Genshaft

Presentando a su nuevo presidente.

Northwestern’s and University of Chicago’s student leadership reflect the changing face of American demographics: This year both universities elected Latino student government presidents.

“I wanted to dispel the misconception that being Latino limits your leadership to only that group,” Associated Student Government President Rachel Lopez said. “It was a widely held presumption on this campus.”

While Lopez openly embraces her Latino heritage, she doesn’t want to be pegged as the token Latino leader.

“It was time for me to break the glass ceiling in ASG,” said Lopez, a Weinberg junior. “I had a call to action in that way.”

More than 1.4 million Latinos call metropolitan Chicago home, according to the 2000 U.S. census figures. Census data shows Latinos quickly becoming the fastest-growing minority group in a number of metropolitan cities. Chicago’s population is composed of more than 17 percent Latinos.

Some experts believe it’s a sign of the growing opportunities for minorities in education, business and politics.

Though many faculty members attribute the direct connection with this elected office to coincidence, more Latino students will take on leadership roles as enrollment numbers increase, NU sociology Prof. Bernard Beck said.

At NU, Latinos compose about 4.5 percent of undergraduate students, according to the Office of the Registrar. In 1997, Latinos made up 3.4 percent of undergraduates.

“We haven’t been as forthright in seeking minority students,” Lopez said. “It represents Northwestern not really getting out there and competing for the top minority students.”

About 3 percent of students at U. of C. are Latino, the Illinois Board of Higher Education reported.

“Minorities are certainly more active on campus because there is this lack of awareness on campus and they’re making up for it,” said sophomore Enrique Gomez, student government president at U. of C.

Latinos and other minorities feel more empowered about their status and confident in the leadership roles they assume, Gomez said.

As Latino enrollment slowly increases, “we’ve reassured ourselves that this is our place – that we belong here,” he said.

And as more Latinos enter college, they will find better job opportunities that a college degree affords, Beck said. He said Latinos prefer to embrace their cultural heritage while assimilating into mainstream society.

“Culture evolves,” Lopez said. “Whenever you’re in a setting, your culture changes to that setting.”

Although he tries to shake the Latino label attached to his presidency, Gomez said he provides a voice for minority students.

“We have this very vibrant student body, and there’s no reason why a small minority can’t be heard,” he said.

Gomez said academic and religious prejudice barely exist at U. of C., but racial segregation in college campuses is “a matter of fact – it just is.”

“And it’s by no means imposed,” he said. “It’s just who you hang out with.”

Gomez said that dynamic tends to affect minority students. But as intermarriage increases, the social fabric will change, Beck said.

“Once you start having patterns of intermarriage, there is a process of amalgamation into a single nation … in which all boundaries are permeable,” Beck said.