Although we are always continuously learning and expect to have more to say on this topic in the future, in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month we are presenting this brief history of Latinx students at Princeton University prior to this century.
It’s never clear who the “first” person of a given demographic might be, but here are some early records we have for Latinx students:
- Pedro Rioseco, Class of 1888, was born in Cuba, where his father had been a cigar manufacturer. Rioseco attended secondary school at Fewsmith’s Academy in Philadelphia. At Princeton, he helped start a Spanish class and was known as Peter.
- Harold Medina, the son of a Mexican immigrant father and a mother of Dutch and Swiss descent who banned Spanish from their home, came to Princeton in 1905 to join the Class of 1909. Medina struggled to fit in at first, but eventually found a robust social world on campus, joining the fencing, gun, and water polo teams and securing a position on the editorial board of the Princeton Tiger. Medina later had a long career as a federal judge as an appointee of the Truman administration, ultimately sitting on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 1951-1980.
- A Puerto Rican student, José Vicente Ferrer de Otero y Cintrón, better known as José Ferrer, was a member of the Class of 1933. He was born in San Juan, but his family moved to New York in 1914. At Princeton, Ferrer was involved in a few different aspects of show business. He directed an orchestra that played for student dances, the Pied Pipers, and Triangle Club gave him some further training for his future career as an entertainer. Ferrer became famous for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway and later on film, for which he won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, making him the first Latinx recipient of an Oscar. In 1985, Ronald Reagan awarded him the National Medal of Arts.
A handful of other Latinx students came to Princeton during the next several decades, and in the 1950s, students from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal gathered together in the Hispanic Club. Representing both graduate and undergraduate students, the group provided social connections as well as an outlet for activism. Students recruited others from Latin America to join them.
The strongest community development appears to have begun in the 1970s with a small group of Latin American undergraduates: Larry Garcia ’73 from Mexico; Manuel del Valle ’71 and Margarita Rosa ‘74 from Puerto Rico; and Marta Hernandez ’73, a Cuban-American. Latinx students began recruiting more of their peers to join them at Princeton.
Latinx students formed several organizations in the late 20th century:
- Del Valle founded the Association of Latin Collegiates, who quickly changed their name to Unión Latinoamericana. The group sought to provide social support and to organize for political causes. In the early 1970s, for example, they worked to support the National Lettuce Boycott, part of the Salad Bowl Strike that pushed for the rights of farm workers. The group dissolved around 1973.
- Some students wanted a group focused more on social support and formed Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos in 1973.
- In 1974, Frank Reed ’76 helped found the Chicano Caucus.
- In the early 1980s, the Latina Women’s Group formed, lasting only a few years.
- In the late 1980s, the Chicano Caucus merged with some students from Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos to form the Latino Task Force, led by Joel Barrera ’87.
- Ballet Folklórico formed in the 1980s and performed traditional Mexican dances at University events.
- In the mid-1990s, an informal group, Yukiyú, formed as an outlet for Puerto Rican students who wanted to perform festive choreography to salsa and merengue music.
Of course, these organizations weren’t acting solely on their own. Minority students across campus connected at the Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center), and the various Latinx organizations banded together over issues of mutual concern. The Chicano Caucus and Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos joined forces to push for greater representation in the 1970s and 1980s. In April 1974, they organized a complaint to the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and brought concerns to the administration about the lack of Latinx faculty, staff, and students on campus. Sonia Sotomayor ’76, Charles Hey ’77, and Frank Reed ’76 were all active in this effort. The University responded by creating a position of Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, first held by Frank Ayala, Jr. from 1974-1979. He helped many Latinx students adjust to Princeton. In the 1980s, the Latino Task Force continued working to increase Latinx representation on campus.
In addition to representation, Latinx students engaged in activism to change Princeton’s curriculum. Students initiated the first known course in the Ivy League on Puerto Rico, “History of the Politics of Puerto Rico,” in the spring of 1970. As “Princeton in a New Light” noted ca. 1971, courses like this were “a response to the suggestions, criticisms and demands of minority students themselves.” Other courses students brought to Princeton in the 1970s and 1980s included “The Mexican-American,” “Mexico and the Southwest,” and “Spanish for Latinos.”
The work of reshaping Princeton University continued throughout the 20th century. As Myrna Santiago ’82 explained in the April 1980 issue of The Vigil, there was no alternative to such activism. “Believe it or not, Princeton does reflect the outside world, and what happens to us in this microcosm may just reflect what will happen after it.” Sotomayor won the Pyne Prize in 1976. She is believed to be the first Latinx student to have earned this distinction, which is given to the member of the senior class who has most clearly manifested excellence in scholarship, strength of character, and effective leadership. When accepting the award, Sotomayor said,
The people I represent are diverse in their opinions, cultures and experiences. However, we are united by a common bond. We are attempting to exist distinctly within the rich Princeton tradition, without the tensions of having our identities constantly challenged and without the frustrations of isolation. In different ways and in different styles, some loudly and others quietly, Princeton’s minorities have created a milieu in which I could act and see the efforts accepted. …
However, Princeton’s acceptance of our existence and thoughts is only a first step. The challenge to both myself and Princeton is to go beyond a simple recognition. I hope today marks the beginning of a new era for all of us: a new era in which Princeton’s traditions can be further enriched by being broadened to accommodate and harmonize with the beat of those who march to different drummers.
The feelings of isolation, frustration with finding a way to make Princeton more hospitable to Latinx students, and awareness of the diversity of Latinx identities that Sotomayor described in 1976 were echoed by student writings in the 1980s and 1990s. In a range of campus publications, including Amancer, La Mujer Latina, Nuestras Voces, Sol del Este, The Vigil, and AP Newsletter, we find students reflecting on all of these themes. Michele Parris ‘90’s “We Hunger,” for example, describes the campus architecture as “impervious walls” that “do not know us.” In 1983, Suzanne Villalon ’82 told the Los Angeles Times, “I felt very alienated, depressed and homesick most of the time” at Princeton. Oral history interviews done in recent years give us further insight into the conflicted feelings Latinx students had. Eddie Gonzalez-Novoa ’93 recently spoke about how experiences at Princeton were similar to his experiences in high school.
But then there were kind of little comments…And having my guidance counselor be like, ‘Oh, you should apply to Princeton. You’d have a good chance of getting in. You’re Puerto Rican. And I’m thinking, ‘And I’m also smart and involved in things.’ And so I’m like, ‘If you’re my biggest cheerleader and the best thing you can say on my behalf is I’m Puerto Rican [that] doesn’t say a lot for your confidence in me as my guidance counselor.’ And these kind of little comments…in some ways kind of prepared me for when I got to Princeton and experienced the same thing…
Some Latinx students channeled these feelings into action. Patricia “Trish” Garcia-Monet ’92 was elected University Student Government president in 1989. She ran on a platform that explicitly elevated minority issues at Princeton and asserted that she would not be afraid to stand up to the administration. The announcement of her candidacy in the Daily Princetonian noted that she had previously been involved in a sit-in at Nassau Hall, spending the night in the Faculty Room with dozens of other students on February 15, 1989 to protest “indifference to student concerns.” As USG president, Garicia-Monet later said, she had an opportunity to reshape how everyone saw Princeton. “I got to do a lot of things, like speak to the wives of the Class of ’40—a particularly proud moment,” she said in 2011. “They were so surprised to see a Hispanic female in particular. They were so surprised by that.” Garcia-Monet remained engaged after graduating, continuing to weigh in when she felt she could contribute to help Princeton “move forward as a community,” but she also said that the experiences she had as USG president helped her to push for progress elsewhere in her business career. “It made me able to…speak about diversity and identity with confidence.”
As research into the different ways Princeton University has been transformed over time continues, we expect to learn a good deal more about how Latinx students have driven and directed these changes both at Princeton and the world beyond. If you have anything to contribute to this topic, please let us know.
Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos website
Harold R. Medina Papers (MC174)
Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058)
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
For further reading:
Garcia, Mario. “Acción Puertorriqueña and Divisions among Puerto Ricans at Princeton.”
Moran, Julio. “Chicanos Find Cultural Shock in the Ivy League.” Los Angeles Times 22 June 1983: A3.
Perales, Courtney, with April C. Armstrong and Mario Garcia. “Latinx Student Poetry at Princeton.”