Students, faculty, staff celebrate at 25th Latino Unity Dinner

More than 170 faculty, staff and students joined together Oct. 13 for the 25th Latino Unity Dinner, which included performances and poetry from students and student organizations, as well as a keynote address from Eduardo Peñalver '94, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, Cornell Law School and an Arts & Sciences grad.

A few years after its inception in 1987, the Latina/o Studies Program (LSP) began holding the yearly unity event to celebrate Latino Heritage Month. Over the years, the dinner has grown larger and more festive, and has become a key student-driven activity for LSP. This year’s theme was De Fortaleza y Esperanza (of Strength and Hope), a theme organizers selected to honor the 25th anniversary of the event, which they said brought the Latina/o community together during difficult times years ago.

Cornell President Martha Pollack poses with faculty, staff, students at the 25th Latino Unity Dinner

The theme of strength and hope was reflected in the essays, performances and  speeches given throughout the night. In his address, Peñalver reflected on the concept of “Latino Unity” and its connections to larger issues of unity.

“An event like this one, which celebrates as broad a concept as ‘Latino’ might – from a certain point of view – seem especially surprising here at Cornell University – a place in which we tend to distinguish with scholastic precision among finely drawn identities,” Penalver said.

But, he argued, uniting under a common identifier as Latinas/Latinos is useful in at least two respects — as a coalition-builder in changing entrenched systems and structures, and secondly as a way to achieve greater justice within the Latino community.

“Tonight we choose to forget for a moment the many things that might distinguish us from one another,” Peñalver said. “We choose instead to focus on those things we share as Latinos and Latinas. We choose to forget because we find ‘Latino’ unity to be valuable, because we realize that we are stronger together as a single community. And – importantly – we can learn from that choice; we can choose to look for the common ground we have with others on our campus and in our country. We can choose to forget from time to time our differences with those around us with whom we share common goals for social change.”

Melissa Aranda ‘19, one of the students who planned the event, said Peñalver’s speech “highlighted how us Latinx are different, yet in the face of unpleasant circumstances we must unite together as a collective. The Latino community is full of rich culture and customs that are unique for every Latinx person. We as a community, especially here at Cornell, always have a strong bond filled with love for each other.”

A new feature of the dinner this year was the presentation of the first Nuestro Futuro award, for which first-year or transfer students were asked to create a piece of work that showed how Cornell’s Latinx community has impacted them so far or how they wish to impact the community in the years to come.

Aranda, a member of the committee, said the award was created to “honor the community’s future…. and those who will be the future of our community’s legacy.”

The winner of the award was Mustapha Toureg ’21.

Also at the dinner, Irving Torres-Lopez ’18 was named the winner of the Marti Dense Leadership Award and read an essay related to that award.

“I will look back on my time at Cornell and remember this comunidad and all of the people that make it up: students pulling all-nighters studying for exams; rachetxs who blast music all night long; people who are tired of the music and just want to go to sleep; students who came to this Ivy League institution shooting for their shot at that degree. We are a community so large and powerful that we cannot be confined to a building or to half of a floor at the top of Rockefeller Hall,” Torres wrote in his essay.

Also a member of the planning committee for the dinner, Torres said that it’s important to realize that community members experience their struggles in different ways.

 “As a community we have all experienced the impact of those differences and we should never be blind to them,” he said. “At the same time, our collective existence and resistance on this campus draws from our ability to draw from those differences and not avoid them, and we have been successful year after year in organizing and asserting our right to study and succeed at this institution.”

The student-led effort in planning for the dinner began in February with the committee of 13 students and two staff members meeting bi-weekly in the spring and weekly starting this fall.

The dinner is funded by the Latina/o Studies Program, with support from the Latino Living Center, Office of the Dean of Students, La Asociacion Latina, Campus Life Marketing & Communications, Diversity Alumni Programs and North Campus Faculty Programs.

Photos by Grace Marcelo ‘19

Poster artwork by Kevin Cruz ’18

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Hosts Estefani Maria Romano ’19 and Irving Torres-Lopez ‘18