UC Merced

An alternate ceremony in Spanish

Saturday morning in Lakireddy Auditorium at UC Merced, a man holding an incense-filled vessel faced the four cardinal directions.

He spoke in Spanish and English for what was a traditional Aztec blessing.

More than 50 UC Merced graduates, their families and friends, turned with the man as he faced north, west, east and south.

The blessing opened an alternate commencement -- the Chicano-Latino commencement -- hours before the university's official graduation ceremony began.

The event, organized by a group of Latino students, came after a year of fundraising and organizing for a bilingual ceremony.

"For me, it's a gift to my parents," said Carolina Valero, a graduate who helped organize the event. Since her parents, like those of many of her fellow graduates, speak Spanish better than English, a bilingual event made it easier for their families could fully participate.

While the commencement was about recognizing the culture of Latino students and giving their families a more intimate setting for celebration, it was hard to ignore the political undertones.

Not only was the keynote speaker Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, but many of the events organizers were vocal in their disappointment of the university's efforts to serve Valley students.

They focused especially on Latinos who make up a plurality of the student body at the university and a majority in much of the Valley.

Thirty-two percent of the school's students are Latino, and they make up 52 percent of Merced's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While many of the graduates and organizers were happy about their day in the sun, the university's failure to establish a Chicano or Latino major and the lack of Latino professors at the school suggested to some of them the school's priorities.

"We really need these kind of studies here because they represent us," said Valero.

Maricela Rangel-Garcia, who helped organize the event, echoed that sentiment. "Many of us wanted to study our culture," she said. "But there's not a Chicano/Latino studies here at Merced."

Another organizer of the event, Sean Lambert-Diaz, said Latino students at the university gathered about 400 signatures to support the start of a Chicano studies major -- so far, to no avail.

In a brief press conference Saturday, UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang said, "We are doing our best. Eventually, I can say we will have a Chicano studies."

The morning ceremony's keynote speech by Huerta was wide-ranging, but one point she hammered home was how few Latinos in the Valley and state ever make it to university at all.

Despite the demographic weight of Latinos, said Huerta, they still hold few positions of power in all fields. "We are not at the table," she said.

But, she continued, the graduates at Saturday's ceremony represented a shift in the status quo. Their success gave them power to make change for those that are still powerless.

"Your job," said Huerta," is to come back and help the working people."

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or jalmb@mercedsun-star.com.