UC Berkeley senior Emiliano Silva was strolling through campus when he heard what sounded like a traditional Mexican mariachi group.
“I heard this song — this traditional song, called ‘Amor Eterno,’ about grief and family — and I just felt something special in my body,” Silva said. “So I followed the music and found the group Mariachi Luz de Oro, and the community just took me in.”
Silva, who is now co-chair of Mariachi Luz de Oro, noted that finding community on campus is ‘crucial’ for both him and the thousands of other Latine and Chicanx students at UC Berkeley. Silva added that while the school touts its diverse student body on flyers and campaigns, he felt alone as a Mexican transfer student before joining the mariachi group.
Dominik Aylard, UC Berkeley doctoral student and external affairs co-chair of Berkeley SACNAS, echoed this sentiment. SACNAS is an organization that encourages Hispanic, Chicanx, Latine and Native American students to pursue careers and leadership positions in STEM.
Many of these students feel outnumbered and out of place, especially in academia, according to Aylard.
“In SACNAS, I get another community of individuals in academia that have similar cultural backgrounds and lived experiences as I do,” Aylard said. “It is a group coming together very far away from our homes. We can come together to tackle the challenges of STEM together.”
Many of these clubs were started with the intention of providing a community to UC Berkeley students. According to Jeltsin Obregon, campus senior and president of Latin American Leadership Society, or LLS, his organization was started by a couple of students looking for a Latine community.
Obregon noted that while LLS has grown significantly since its founding in 2015 — it now has both an active social and professional presence — the original goal of the organization was to create a sense of community for students who identify as Latine.
“(The founders) would walk around campus, and if they heard someone speaking Spanish they would invite them to join the club,” Obregon said. “LLS keeps its roots in finding your people you can connect with. Share your similarities and also your differences and be celebrated because of them.”
The Latine community is also more diverse than many people realize, according to Obregon, who emphasized the importance of having cultural clubs for Hispanic students to find their place. Because there are both similarities and differences among Latine students, Obregon said it’s best to provide as many options as possible.
Silva also stressed the importance of having Hispanic and Latine clubs on campus. To Silva, it is a special feeling to be a part of something that is “close to you culturally.” Having grown up around mariachi, Silva said his family is proud to see him “embracing his roots” while pursuing higher education.
“These clubs are everything for their students,” Silva said. “It’s as simple as a place to speak Spanish in. It’s a simple thing. but for any international student, being able to freely speak your first language is more meaningful than many people think.”
Outside of a purely cultural and social community, Hispanic and Latine clubs also provide professional and academic support for students who are often underrepresented. Obregon noted that outside of making long-lasting friendships in LLS, he has grown as a leader, a professional and a person since joining the club.
According to Aylard, higher education is set up for a very specific group of people, and it can be hard for Chicanx and Indigenous students to find their footing.
Organizations such as SACNAS are important because they make the process of graduate school easier for underrepresented students. Oftentimes, other people from privileged backgrounds or positions of power cannot understand the struggles Hispanic students face, Aylard added.
“It is very important to really push forward a lot of the efforts to make academia and Berkeley more diverse,” Aylard said. “We are trying to help people through the same situations we have gone through.”
Support from peers who are from similar backgrounds is especially important amid tumultuous times. Hurricane Fiona, which made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, impacted much of the Hispanic community, according to Aylard.
Aylard noted that clubs such as SACNAS and Boricuas at Berkeley do outreach, helping support their communities beyond campus. He noted Hurricane Fiona fundraising efforts by Boricuas at Berkeley as a great example of these endeavors.
“We can’t just come to school and focus on our work when people have families that have been impacted,” Aylard said. “Boricuas and SACNAS offer a place to actually think about this stuff and actually do something about it.”
The student organizations are supported by various faculty, the LEAD Center and the Chicanx Latine Student Development Office.
Obregon emphasized how valuable that support is, but noted that increased resources and funding would be useful. Silva added the campus Latine community has been “incredible.”
Aylard agreed that while campus faculty are very supportive, very few Hispanic faculty make up the leadership of UC Berkeley, with even less Indigenous faculty leadership. Aylard added the purpose of SACNAS and similar organizations is to be “drivers for inclusion across the board.”
“We do not care what culture you are from, as long as you are respectful and want to give mariachi a try you are always, always, always welcome,” Silva said. “It brings me so much pride to be in this group.”