Critical Mass

Latino student organizations strive to make their mark on campus despite low memberships and few Hispanics at MU
Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:25 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Hispanic organizations at MU have hung in limbo for several years, somewhere between thriving and becoming extinct. As MU recognizes the need to recruit more Hispanics, the existing Latino societies on campus struggle for members and participation.

But small memberships and persistently low meeting turnouts haven’t deterred the determined members of these groups. The Hispanic American Leadership Organization, for example, has made leaps and bounds in its number of members. Now there are about 10 active members.

“When I was a freshman, I remember when the club had three members, including myself,” said Jesse Berrios, current vice president. “The organization is still in a period of rebuilding.” In this, HALO is not alone. The Latin American Students Association nearly folded a year ago when the group couldn’t get anyone to agree to hold key leadership positions. But members rallied in response to the crisis, and several finally agreed to step forward.

The group has doubled in size in the time that its president, Johana Vallejo, has been a student at MU.

“Four years ago, LASA was the only organization on campus, and then it only had 20 or so members,” Vallejo said.

The trend is in an upward slope. However, the issue is not hard and fast numbers — it’s the consistency of membership. The membership in these student groups fluctuates, so much so that there are times when the populations of the groups are nearly cut in half. To combat such problems, Vallejo finds herself begging for activity.

“It depends on what we are doing,” said Vallejo. “If it’s a social event, then there will be people there, but meetings and elections are more of a problem.”

Another approach to the problem of waning membership is to become less exclusive. Typically, the groups that prosper are the ones who have not limited their association to Hispanic students. LASA, for example, is open to students, professors and members of the community. Other organizations have followed suit.

Sigma Lambda Gamma is a Latina-based, multicultural sorority and was founded at MU in 2000. Due to increasing demand for a male counterpart to the Latina sorority, two fraternities, Sigma Lambda Beta and Lambda Sigma Upsilon, were created for Latino men on campus.

All three Greek-letter organizations continue to stay active on campus, but their percentages of Latino members are waning.

“The smartest thing I ever did was to make the fraternity multicultural and not limited just to Hispanics,” said Sigma Lambda Beta founder Jesse Berrios. “There’s just not enough Hispanics on campus to do that.”

Four of the six members of his fraternity are Latino.

The other men’s fraternity, Lambda Sigma Upsilon, was established last spring as the first official Hispanic fraternity at MU. The founders of the fraternity even took an extra measure in being recognized by the Interfraternity Council, the governing body of the fraternities at MU and a largely Caucasian organization.

But where are they now?

Two of the six founding members graduated and have moved out of the Columbia area, leaving the other four members to support their emergent fraternity. They are still actively recruiting.

Smaller organizations do not mean smaller workloads. According to Annette Desarden, vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, smaller chapters mean more work for each member.

“The only members that don’t participate are sometimes the graduate students and students who just have a work overload,” Desarden said. “It’s a small chapter, and people get tired.”

Unlike other student groups, the engineer organization maintains a relatively consistent membership thanks to an exchange program between MU and the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

Some say part of the difficulty in recruiting arises from the fact that there aren’t many Hispanics here to begin with.

“That’s the biggest issue for most Latinos at MU, is that there are hardly any here,” said Rebecca Flato, vice president of the new student group League of United Latin American Citizens.

Another is that not everyone identifies with being Hispanic or Latin American enough to become active in such a group. About 390 Hispanic students are registered at MU, but the numbers of Hispanic students at MU are skewed, according to Becca Villarreal, president of HALO.

“It’s just a box that you check on your application, and you never have to follow through with identifying with the rest of the Latino community here on campus,” Villarreal said. “Lots of people do it because they think that there are more benefits to being a minority student.”

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