We are family: UWRF Latinos find meaning in Hispanic Heritage Month
Jason Caballero, a senior football player and president of the Latino Student Organization, grew up in urban Houston before arriving for school at UW-River Falls.
The city of River Falls, which is only 1.3 percent Hispanic/Latino according to the American Community Survey 2011-2015, was an entirely new experience for Caballero.
“Being from a majority (in Houston) to a minority out here was an odd feeling to take on,” Caballero said. “It was hard to adjust to that in the first two years. I felt like I was the only one and didn’t have a voice.”
UWRF’s student body is 88 percent white, with Hispanic/Latino students making up the largest minority on campus. Those 167 students made up about 3 percent of the student population in 2016-2017, which rose almost 50 percent from the 113 Hispanic/Latino students at UWRF in 2012-2013, according to the UW-River Falls Office of Institutional Research.
Even though these students make up a significant portion of the population, people tend to group them all together and ignore their distinct cultures. Efforts such as Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, are causes that help raise awareness for the unique culture and history of a variety of ethnic groups.
Both of Caballero’s parents grew up in El Salvador before fleeing during a civil war to look for opportunity in the United States. Caballero said they started with nothing but used their work ethic to achieve new opportunities in life. He has tried to expand upon this idea in his own time at UWRF.
Once Caballero began to identify with fellow Latinos at the university, he began to feel less isolated and more confident in who he was. With four new Latino freshmen on the football team, Caballero was determined to make sure they didn’t have to stand alone.
“I wanted to make sure they would feel welcomed and not just for football, but as a part of a community,” Caballero said. “We Latinos, whether we’re Puerto Rican, Hispanic, etc., identify each other as one family.”
That family aspect has put Caballero into the mentor role for freshmen Anthony Silva, Justice Watson, Fernie Ortega and Angel Bautista. Caballero is happy to see more Latinos coming to UWRF.
“I try to keep my arm around them and help them with the struggles of school,” he said. “They’ve responded well to that, and I kind of feel like a father to them. I want them to get to the point where I am in my life, as a senior soon to graduate.”
Awareness efforts like Hispanic Heritage Month and being a part of the football family have allowed Caballero to let teammates help learn what his culture and people are like.
“Just as they were curious to learn about my culture, I was curious to learn about their culture, so it was a learning experience for us,” Caballero said. “Family is a big part of the football team, and I think that correlates with Hispanic heritage. Family is everything you need in your life.”
Sophomore soccer player Mariah Troje had a much different experience than Caballero. Troje’s grandparents are both 100 percent Mexican, but her mother’s generation wasn’t as immersed in Hispanic culture.
Troje’s grandfather still speaks Spanish with his brothers and sisters, but didn’t pass the language on to Troje’s mother once she was born in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. Troje took Spanish in high school, but wasn’t fluent in the language growing up.
“I’m Hispanic, but most see me as white,” Troje said. “Most people also say I don’t look Mexican, so that may be a factor too.”
While she might not be as directly connected to her past, the Hispanic concept of family still maintains a strong hold on her life.
“I get an identity with my team,” Troje said. “Having more than just one person and having people to understand what I’m going through helps a lot.”
Troje’s grandmother on her father’s side had recently had hip surgery because of cancer in her bones. The support and effort from her team to put on the Kick for a Cure game against UW-Oshkosh on Sept. 30 had a significant effect on Troje.
Troje may not be completely rooted in Hispanic culture but still sees great benefits from Hispanic Heritage Month. She said it can help others understand where people are coming from and can help others gain knowledge about other cultures.
While there are challenges that minority students face at the university, the UWRF Athletics Department is helping students feel more included in diversity initiatives around campus.
Interim Athletic Director Crystal Lanning said steps are in the process to allow more collaboration between athletes, staff and the campus culture.
“In our strategic plan last year, one of our primary goals was to increase inclusion and diversity efforts,” Lanning said. “One giant step we took in that area was we hired a coordinator for Diversity, Inclusion and Student-Athlete Success.”
Chantel Flegler has recently stepped into this role through the Division III ethnic minority women’s internship grant. The grant helps place women or minorities into athletic administrative roles. Lanning said this new hire proves that the department is committed to their desire to increase diversity efforts.
Lanning also hopes Flegler can get connected with other organizations on campus to help bring athletics in line with what the rest campus is doing in diversity efforts.
One other new aspect this year is the creation of a Diversity Council. This student-driven group meets once or twice a month. Assistant athletic director Kellen-Wells Mangold heard about the need for a group and facilitated it, Lanning said.
“They wanted to talk about things that are important to them,” Lanning said. “It’s an open dialogue, and anyone’s invited. It doesn’t have to be a student of color. They want to get teammates and coaches involved and start a conversation.”