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. Historical Photograph Collection, Alumni Photographs Series (AC058), Box SP12.
- 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.
By Mario Garcia ’18
Founded in 1972, Acción Puertorriqueña—later known as Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos—was a student group initially consisting of Puerto Rican undergraduates and later allies who sought to create spaces for Puerto Rican cultures on Princeton’s campus through cultural events and student-led activism. Such celebratory events included the beginnings of Latino Graduation in 1990 and National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1989 as commemorations of the experiences of Princeton students descending from Latin American ancestry, while activist initiatives included lobbying for seminars related to Puerto Rican histories and recruitment programs for Puerto Rican students in the 1970s as strategies for empowering Puerto Rican communities on campus.
Event flyer, 1981. Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342), Box 1.
By Courtney Perales ’17 with April C. Armstrong *14 and Mario Garcia ’18
Students have often used the arts and poetry to express themselves and enhance their identities on campus. Two Latinx poems I found in student publications in the archives this spring were particularly striking to me: “Lloro Por Mi Puerto Rico Perdido” in La Mujer Latina, by Maribel Garcia ’84, and “We Hunger” in The Vigil, by Michele Parris ’90. I also ran across a reprint of “Our Tongue was Nauhuatl” by noted Mexican-American poet Ana Castillo in Sol Del Este East Coast Chicanx Student Forum Newsletter. One thing that stood out among these three different Latinx poems were that they delved into topics around identity, sense of belonging, and racial insensitivity and microaggressions students were experiencing. In another Latinx student publication, Amanecer, there were many more poems with similar themes. The poems depicted how these students were part of and yet pushed against the idea of a “Latinx monolith.” Wrestling with topics like borders, immigration, and independence, each piece pulled from deep emotional reserves and evoked the pain, confusion, and frustrations that came with being a student of color at Princeton.
La Mujer Latina, Spring 1982. Historical Subject Files (AC109) Box 297, Folder 8.