Jewel-toned walls, bench-lined patios and clusters of palms and other tropical plants make the new Centro Cultural Cesar Chavez shine like a gem in its nook across from Reser Stadium. The latest cultural center on campus to get a new building, the Centro is hosting a grand opening ceremony Monday, April 7, beginning at 5 p.m.
The Centro, which was created for Latino students on campus, is one of four new cultural centers being built to replace aging structures. The centers provide space for students to socialize, celebrate and study, as well as to learn more about their own culture and explore the world of other students of different backgrounds.
“Oregon State does a great job in supporting students from diverse backgrounds, and the Centro provides a space for dialogue and an opportunity to share perspectives,” said Miguel Arellano, a graduate assistant who helps coordinate Centro activities. “That combined with the support services offered at OSU provides a place where students from different backgrounds are able to thrive. This is a welcoming space for all students to learn about or retain Latino culture.”
In 1971, a group of nine students met in the basement of Milam Hall in an effort to establish a Latino student organization. Originally called the Chicano Cultural Center, the basement location was less than ideal, and students eventually asked for a more permanent and independent location on campus. After temporarily moving into a house on Orchard Street, in 1977 they moved into an older, former family home on A Street.
After four decades, the house has finally been replaced. A crowded living room and sun-faded deck have been swapped for a spacious building that includes a large gathering hall, multiple office and study spaces and a large kitchen for hosting social events. The Centro is affiliated with 17 different student organizations on campus and is a popular spot for many different events, from cultural celebrations to social justice activities. In the Spring, for example, they host a month of events around labor organizer Cesar Chavez’ legacy.
“It’s a space where students can gain a broader world view,” Arellano said, and the new building will offer many more opportunities to bring people from around campus into the Centro to celebrate Latino heritage.
“I grew up in Woodburn, and coming from a place that is 60 percent Latino to a place where the Latino population is around 6 percent, there’s a big difference,” Arellano said, which is why having a place like the Centro is so important to student retention. “When you’re participating in events here, you see people who look like you, and who share similar passions and experiences.”
Latino identity is broad and complex, and represents people from many different parts of the world, which can be difficult to encompass in one building. But the Centro staff tries to make the space welcoming not just for Latino students, but anyone on campus who wants to stop in.
For Joyce Contreras, a human development and family sciences major who grew up in Beaverton, the Centro has provided her the chance to explore aspects of her Mexican background that she had previously not been in touch with.
“I wanted to be involved with the Centro because I wanted to further my knowledge about my own heritage and be a welcoming individual to others. What we say about our center is ‘This is a home away from home.’ I wanted to be in that environment and learn more about my culture,” she said. For Contreras, it was important to find her roots. Before she became involved with Centro, she didn’t know whether to identify as Mexican or Hispanic, and often switched between the two. Now she proudly identifies as Latina, and understands the cultural and political context of the term.
Contreras is the activities coordinator at the Centro, which has expanded her knowledge of many different traditions.
“By putting on events that I’m not very familiar with, that makes me do some research and learn about it, and then talk to people who have actually celebrated some of these traditions,” she said. “That’s how I learn, practicing and teaching others about the different traditions, and also practicing my Spanish.”
Nazario Rivera, a public health major from Hermiston, started attending events at the Centro as a freshman. As a fourth year student, he now works as the internal coordinator, and is excited about how much space is now available for students. He believes having the Centro has greatly increased his success as a student on campus.
“Before coming to Oregon State I didn’t know about the cultural centers, but I definitely think that’s one of the things that’s made me stay at Oregon State,” he said. “This school does a great job of making sure all students feel that this is a home for them too.”
Rivera hopes that students from all backgrounds will stop by the new Centro.
“All these centers are student fee-paid,” Rivera said. “A big misconception is if I’m not part of this community I won’t feel as safe. But we’re trained to make sure that everyone coming in feels like this is somewhere they can hang out.”
The 3,565 square-foot building cost $2,521,051. The building was designed by Seattle-based architects Jones & Jones, who also designed the Native American Longhouse, which opened the doors on its new building last spring. They are also designing new buildings for the Lonnie B. Harris Black Cultural Center and the Asian Pacific Cultural Center.
The four cultural centers are being funded with a combination of private gifts and university funds. The project got off the ground with a $500,000 gift from the late Portland philanthropist Joyce Collin Furman to create the OSU President’s Fund for Cultural Centers. The 1965 OSU alumna was a strong supporter of her alma mater and served on the steering committee for The Campaign for OSU.
The Centro is located at 691 SW 26th Street. For more information on the grand opening, go to https://www.facebook.com/events/754118061279312/
~ Theresa Hogue