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Going Greek with a Latino spin

Special to The Times

On a cool fall night at the University of Houston, Eric Gonzales and his Alpha Psi Lambda fraternity brothers are considering the “two-for-one Thursday” special at a nearby buffalo-wings restaurant, but their conversation is temporarily set aside when Gonzales suddenly remembers to tell them about the tunes he heard at a Phi Kappa Theta kegger.

“Alternative music,” he says, cracking up. Three of his Alpha Psi Lambda brothers smile and nod, amused by the use of music not known for its partying potential. “And they threw in some classic rock too.”

At parties thrown by Alpha Psi Lambda, the DJs play music that keeps revelers moving all night -- “salsa, merengue, hip-hop,” Gonzales says. “We know how to dance!”

That beat has caught on. The chapter of Alpha Psi Lambda founded in 1999 at the Houston college -- a commuter school of 35,000 students -- is part of the growing number of Latino fraternities and sororities at undergraduate schools across the nation. Over the last decade their presence has increased threefold, according to Jeffrey Vargas, head of the National Assn. of Latino Fraternal Organizations.

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The rigid, white Greek system that grudgingly opened to black students decades ago is now providing comfort and connections to Latino students through a national web of organizations and local chapters.

“In the beginning [Latino fraternities] just looked like rough copies of the white Greek or black Greek organizations,” Vargas said. “Now, there’s a deeper base, and they’re putting together a better, more comprehensive package to attract students.”

That package varies from campus to campus. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Latino fraternities have their own houses. At Brown University, “Latino Greeks” throw an annual gala, known in Spanish as a Noche Dorada. At the University of Houston, they’re helping tutor elementary students enrolled in programs for English as a second language. And during the critical professional years immediately after graduation, some Latino fraternity and sorority members attend networking/cocktail hours hosted by alums of their house.

According to the Center for Education Statistics, the number of Latino undergraduates has more than tripled in the last 30 years. In 1976, there were 352,900 Latino students enrolled in undergraduate institutions, a paltry 3.7% of the national college student body across the U.S. By 2001, the most recent year with available statistics, there were more than 1.4 million Latinos in colleges, representing nearly 11% of the undergraduate student body.

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“And they’re all looking for the same thing: an organization that reminds them of who they are, an organization that lets them feel comfortable,” Vargas said. “Even if you can get into a white Greek organization, there’s a lack of appeal to their background or culture.”

Friends who understand

Susana Munoz can relate to that. When she was an aerospace engineering major at Cal Poly Pomona, she felt like a double minority: a woman of color in a department of white males. One night when she excused herself during a late-night study session to call her mother, she was surprised to find her classmates joking about it when she returned to the room.

“That’s the way I was raised, and I got teased for it a little,” said Munoz, 30, who is now a senior staff engineer at a small engineering company in L.A. “But when I hung out with my sorority sisters, they understood.”

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There is also less financial pressure in the Latino organizations than there is in white chapters. Many Latino students say they balked at the $2,000 to $3,000 budgets of students rushing white fraternities and sororities.

“I don’t think I spent more than $150 in dues during my new-member semester,” said Ruby Alvarado, national executive director of Kappa Delta Chi Sorority Inc., who rushed the Latina chapter at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, in 1996.

This sense of belonging is an important factor in student retention, and for a population of students who have already defied the odds, that is no small task. Latinos have the highest high school dropout rate of any minority in the country. So if they can tap into a support system, the long-term transition to college may be less traumatic, according to Sylvia Hurtado, director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute.

“If you get a small group of support together, that’s not exactly self-segregation,” Hurtado said, echoing the sentiments of other experts interviewed for this story. “They’ve developed their own rituals and social events that speak to their interest.”

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When she interviews Latino college students, Hurtado finds they are troubled by the same issues that she dealt with as a college student in the 1970s. In Latin American history classes or in Spanish language classes they are often asked by the teacher to represent that body of knowledge. They are called on, for example, to give a student-friendly summary of a curriculum they know nothing about. And often, a lecture series will not include one Latino speaker.

“Some administrators are not really attentive to their needs,” Hurtado said.

First-generation coeds

Latino undergrads are, by and large, the first in their families to go to college. Gonzales, the UH student, went to a high school where 80% of the student body was Latino and most of the students’ parents had not finished high school.

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Gonzales, whose father attended UH, was an exception; he says there wasn’t the same disconnect in his home as there was in his college friends’ homes. But in families where college is an unknown, the pressure to make good on the financial investment of tuition and books is intense. At the same time, the student’s access to the power structure remains limited. Few have the resources to accept the type of unpaid internships that help a resume sparkle. Fewer still can win the kinds of paying jobs where they are in contact with industry leaders.

Latino Greek life has helped fill that gap. Vargas, for example, graduated from Brown University in 1995, and his first job as an aide to the mayor of Providence was secured through a friend of his fraternity brother at Lambda Upsilon Lambda.

The postgraduation impact of the expanded fraternity system is evident to Carmen Joge, programs director at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which offers a prestigious nine-month public policy fellowship in Washington to 20 college graduates each year.

When Joge was a fellow in 1993 she says it was “almost unheard of” for applicants to list a Latino fraternity or sorority on their resume. “Now, it’s pretty typical,” she said.

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Joge estimates that of this year’s 215 applicants, one-third had connections to a Latino fraternity or sorority, an affiliation that connects them with a team of enthusiastic alumni in the D.C. area.

“Those that come in with the network have busier agendas right off the bat,” she said. “They’re also a little bit more astute about how to work the networks, so at the receptions they’re a lot smoother in terms of building those bridges in the corporate area.”

It’s tough to say if the Latino Greek phenomenon will continue to grow or if it will fade as a second generation of Latinos enrolls in colleges and universities. Vargas wonders if succeeding generations will lose interest in the Latino Greek experience as their numbers approach those of white students.

For now, though, the brothers and sisters of fraternities like UH’s Alpha Psi Lambda continue to keep their eyes and ears open for good rush candidates for next semester.

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“We don’t do naked runs or anything,” said Vincent Gonzalez, a junior. “Whoever hangs out with us, if it clicks, you go for it.”


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