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Mariana Ortega, director of La Casa Cultural Latina at the University of Illinois, poses for a photo Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, outside the facility in Urbana.

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Six months into her move to Champaign-Urbana, MARIANA ORTEGA is adjusting to Midwestern weather — sort of. Ortega, 31, director of La Casa Cultural Latina at the University of Illinois, has lived her entire life in warm climates — born in Guatemala, lived in Nicaragua until age 4, left for Miami with her mom to escape the war, attended college in Florida and most recently worked at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, N.M. Before driving to sunny Miami with her dog Harley for the holidays, Ortega talked with staff writer Julie Wurth about the big move and her plans for La Casa.

What drew you to La Casa?

For me, honestly, it was the position itself, being able to continue to give back to the Latinx community. The school I used to work at was a Hispanic-serving institution, and I did have a bit of a challenge leaving — the thought of not giving back to students. I was in the same shoes many years ago, and my mentor is a huge reason I am the leader I am today. He really helped me through college at a time when I didn’t believe in myself. That really is my passion for higher education, seeing the power in promoting access to higher education for marginalized groups.

When I saw the title of my position, I was blown away that it was fully in Spanish, La Casa Cultural Latina, because you don’t see that in higher education. The historical meaning and significance that this center has, I don’t think there’s a center like it anywhere else in the United States.

What makes it unique?

We’re 45 years old. And a lot of universities are starting to merge in the direction of multicultural centers. The fact that this university still has centers where African-American students can still have their own space, where Latinx students can still have their own space but also share programming, is powerful.

The work that’s done here, how student-driven it is, the fact that the center exists because of students, said a lot to me.

What are some of your goals as director?

Our students have different identities. Sometimes when we look at programming, we just look at one identity. Maybe look at our programming and see if we’re embracing that.

The students need a new building. It’s a house. At almost every program, we have people standing in the back. It’s not big enough. A big goal is to get that conversation going to find a way to get them a new building.

Where did you get your degrees?

I went to college at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, and got a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication and a master’s in college student personnel administration.

Are you involved in community service?

I was a founding member of my sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. I help with the local chapter here. I’m in Junior League. I always try to find ways to give back to the community.

What else should we know about you?

I used to run a lot of half-marathons. I have done 10.

My friends are kind of everywhere, since I’ve been all over the place, so we use the half-marathon to reconnect, like our mini-reunion. We run together and we motivate each other to do training. One of them moved to Germany, so now it’s like, “Do we do one abroad?”

What’s your best time?

My personal record I got in Savannah, Ga., a 1:57. I was training in high elevation in New Mexico, so that made such a difference.

Are you planning to run in the Illinois Marathon?

I’m thinking about it. The biggest struggle is just the weather. This is the first time I’ve ever lived anywhere it snows. My students make fun of me because I was telling them I don’t know what negative temperatures feel like. Just looking at when I’d be training is a bit intimidating. I had an injury a year ago, so it’s a slow process getting back into running.

What do you think of living in Illinois?

I really never thought I would be back in a land-locked state. I love the ocean. A lot of my hobbies revolve around the ocean. I love to go fishing and paddle-boarding.

Here, the only hobby I’ve picked up is community service. And I’ve been working out at a gym in town. I also love sports. I’ve gone to football games, I’ve gone to basketball games.

You love to travel — where was your last trip?

Nashville, Tenn. — a girls trip with my friends. It was so much fun. My goal is to travel to all states within the U.S.

How many have you visited?

I don’t know the exact number, but 58 percent. I track it through an app.

How have you adjusted to the cold?

In November, when it snowed ... it was very shocking, to be honest. I was driving and it was snowing. It’s definitely an adjustment. When you live in it for a while, you don’t realize it. Those little things — warming up your car, what you have to wear changes.

My dog had to adapt. His paws are just not thrilled about it. He had to learn to walk in booties. I tried the cream that you put on their paws, but that didn’t work for him.

Did you buy a lot of gear?

I went to Champaign Outdoors. They were probably the lifesaver for my transition. They told me to buy wool socks. That was a life-changing item.

What do you like about living in Champaign-Urbana?

Everyone’s really friendly and it doesn’t feel that small. You have Target, you have three or four Aldi stores. There is a big community and family feeling. There’s also a young population here seeking their goals, their careers, whether they’re here for their Ph.D. program or for an actual job.

I’ve enjoyed the downtown area. There’s different things to do. I enjoyed the smaller festivals in the summer. It was really good to get here before the cold.

What are your plans for the rest of your career?

I want to continue my education, to get a Ph.D. here in educational policy and organizational leadership. I want to work on a college campus the rest of my life.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).