Emphasizing Latino/a “cultural capital”—the collection of individual experiences and learnings shared by the Latino community—keynote speaker Michelle Ferrez recently launched the University of Michigan’s Latinx Heritage Month.

“We bring capital, we bring assets, and that comes from our family, our knowledge, our skills, our abilities, and that comes from our ancestors,” said Ferrez, director of U-M’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. “Part of our culture is storytelling. We cannot lose sight of our shared struggles across our community, nor our unique struggles.”

Ferrez’s Sept. 15 talk at the Michigan Union’s Rogel Ballroom kicked off Latinx Heritage Month in the first large celebration for students since the pandemic started. Each dish served and each speaker had a story to impart, a story representative of their roots, of where they come from, and where they will go.

Miriam Nicolda Palacio, an Afro-Latina chef from Panama, prepared stewed pork, rice with coconut and pigeon peas, and plantains.

“Lo usamos más los domingos. Lo llamamos dominguera,” she said, talking about how the plate is served mostly on Sundays and easily switching from speaking English to Spanish. “The food on the coast has many Caribbean influences. I invite you to Panama to see what Panama is.”

Colombian chef Luz Ruiz made empanadas with sweet cheese and with chicken, and also prepared arepas, which she said are very popular in her country. In order to share that unique flavor with more people, she replaced the corn flour, normally used to make the empanadas, with yuca, making the dish gluten free.

Organizers said incorporating different Latin American foods on the menu and including the chefs and their stories and cultures in the program helps remind students of their roots, as well as the diversity of traditions and cultures that make up the U-M Latinx community.

​​”We wanted this to be a celebration of our accomplishments, however we also wanted to acknowledge that this past year was difficult. We wanted to honor these challenges that molded us so much into who we are today,” said Anamaria Lopez, an organizer of the Latinx Heritage Month activities on campus and a graduate student in the School of Education. “This is where the idea of roots came into play, because whether we like it or not, these roots are now a part of us, and from these roots we flourish.”

During her address, Ferrez spoke about her experiences as an activist, leading her to become an institutional agent and broker, advocating and negotiating for BIPOC students.

It was during her time as an undergraduate student at UCLA that she realized how faculty and staff are able to authentically and genuinely give support to students. Though it is traditionally considered that families establish roots in their children, Ferrez posed the idea that family comes in different forms.

“Family doesn’t necessarily have to be blood family. Family could be friendships. Family could be a person who just took care of you,” she said.

The support of the family she had established among peers, faculty, staff and mentors led her to protest injustices she saw in her community and on campus. When Ferrez and 260 other students were arrested for protesting, they were not alone, she said. They were embraced by their family, propelling Ferrez to continue fighting for her community.

“We need all of you with your capital to fight for social justice, not only in our communities in the United States but in our home countries, throughout Latin America, throughout Central America and throughout the islands in the Caribbean,” she said.

Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, called on students to continue the leadership role Latino/a students have had at the university.

“Your contributions and legacy cannot be fully honored in just one month out of the year, but this month is a great time to pause and reflect,” he said. “The University of Michigan would not be what it is today without the contributions of the Latinx community.”

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