Latino Cultural Center director honored for inclusion efforts

Latino Cultural Center director honored for inclusion efforts

GIOCONDA GUERRA PEREZ, director of the Latino Cultural Center in Urbana, was raised in Panama. Husband Jose Andino, a chemistry lecturer at the UI, hails from El Salvador.

The proud parents of 13-year-old twins Jose and Natalia have more than careers in education in common — both have found a better way of life here than they had back home.

“El Salvador went through a civil war in the 1980s, and my husband experienced the whole thing. In Panama, I was born under a dictatorship until I was 17 years old. So I was born under a military regime,” Guerra Perez says.

Tonight at the I Hotel and Conference Center, the 44-year-old immigrant will be honored for her ongoing efforts to ensure the UI campus provides a warm and welcoming environment for Latino and undocumented students. It’s part of the Women’s Achievement Celebration being put on by the YWCA of the University of Illinois.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell caught up with the winner of the advocacy category ahead of her big night.

What's your coming-to-America story?

I grew up in Panama. My mom is a teacher. She has taught for more than 50 years now in a very rural town where kids walk two to three miles each day to get an education. At an early age, she taught me the value of education. I have never known someone so committed to her career as my mother.

My dad owned a small construction company. He is semi-retired. Both of them are very proud of me. I am very privileged to be able to travel to Panama and visit my parents when I have time.

I first came to the United States as a 20-year-old student to attend the University of Louisville. I got a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States. I did my undergrad work at Louisville and went back to my country. My husband was also a Fulbright Scholar.

After we got married, we both came back to the United States to get our graduate education here. And the kids were born here in the United States.

What are your roles as director of the Latino Cultural Center?

I work and collaborate with the various units on campus, both the student units and the academic units. We make sure that the students have the resources that they need to successfully graduate from the University of Illinois.

We also build programs that are culturally relevant (and) educate not only the campus community but also the community at large about the different subcultures in Latino culture.

How many Latino students attend the UI?

We have approximately 4,500 Latino students. That includes both graduate and undergraduate students. The numbers have been increasing in recent years. Since 2012, our Latino student population has increased by about 8 percent.

Of those, how many grew up here in the United States versus other countries?

Our international student population from Latin America is very small. Unfortunately, we have very few Latino students who are international students. We would like to have more international students from Latin America or the Caribbean to come to the University of Illinois.

I know there are a lot of other universities that recruit in Latin America. Our university hasn't recruited in Latin America. The vast majority of our Latino students here grew up here in the United States and attended American high schools. We mostly serve U.S.-born Latinos. I would say nearly all of our Latino students are bilingual.

Your award is in part for your work with undocumented students. Do you have any idea how many of them there are at the UI?

We do not track our undocumented students. The university will not track them because of confidentiality of student records.

We do provide services for the undocumented students. Our university community understands there should not be any difference in how you treat one student or another, particularly if they have a different immigration status. Our effort since day one has been to educate our staff, students and faculty about undocumented students. We want the administrators to understand that educating undocumented students should not be different than educating students with proper documentation.

Also, it is important for us to look at the human side of it. These are students who may have grown up in our own neighborhood. They attend our schools; they play on our soccer teams. Our focus has been to understand some of the push factors that led these students' families to move here.

Making judgments is not our job. But while they are here, let's look at some of the barriers that they face.

What are some of the most common things you do to help undocumented students when they come to your center?

They will come here and ask if we know of any private scholarships they could apply for. It is very difficult for our undocumented students to pay for college. Undocumented students do not receive any state or federal aid by law. Most of these students have to work two or three jobs. They try to find private scholarships that they are eligible to apply for.

If there are available scholarships, we do write letters or recommendations or letters of support for the students. We motivate the undocumented students to engage with the campus community, to be part of our organizations and to voice their concerns. In that way, we are able to write very strong letters of recommendation for scholarships. We can facilitate anybody who wants to donate to private scholarships to help undocumented students on campus.

You're also receiving the award for your efforts in bringing about a safe environment. How have you been able to do that?

We work closely with the university police department. Many of our students come from communities in which there are already stressors in their relationships with police. There are communities that historically have had a very conflicted relationship with the police.

When I came here, I started communicating with the chief of police and asked him to come here to talk to our students. Our center is open until 10 p.m. We want our students to feel confident that, if something is going on, they will be able to call the police right away, and they will be here to serve them. Lt. Joan Fiesta has come here every year to talk to our students and staff.

Meanwhile, because of a lot of things going on in the country, there are a lot of racial tensions nationally. People in a college town are not isolated to anything happening in Berkeley or Chicago. Our students are connected, particularly with social media. We hold workshops with our students on how to engage with many polarizing issues. Immigration is a very polarizing issue. You have people on one side who say they want to build a wall. You have people on the other side who say, 'Let's create a positive environment for our undocumented students.' How can we look at each other's points of view in a very respectful way?

There is a constant tension right now either one way or the other. Many of our students feel they need a voice to be heard. We talk to the students about how they can channel that voice in a positive way. We have students take part in panels to talk about their immigration experiences. We have students who feel they are victims of racism sometimes. There have been comments made to them in a classroom setting or as they walk down the Quad.

Last year, we had messages that were written around the Quad that said, 'Build the Wall' or 'Deport them all.' Our students want to know what they can do. So some of our students went out and began drawing butterflies, painting them in different colors around the Quad.

Wonder Women

It's Women's Achievement Celebration night at the I Hotel and Conference Center, where from 6 to 8 p.m., the YWCA will hand out five awards. This year's winners:

— Education: Kathy Maniates, Urbana Adult Education

— Advocacy: Gioconda Guerra Perez, La Casa Cultural Latina

— Social Justice: Junior League of C-U

— STEM: Kathryn Clancy, UI Anthropology

— Business: Common Ground Food Co-op

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