Centro Hispano unifies Hispanic and Latinx community at UNCW

Hannah Markov, Editor-in-Chief

UNCW’s Centro Hispano is a rapidly growing organization that formed in 2005 to support the Hispanic and Latinx community on campus. Located on the first floor of Fisher University Union (FUU), Centro Hispano offers students a variety of resources, including cultural events, scholarship and FAFSA assistance and volunteer opportunities, among many others.

“I’ve seen the growth of Centro just through the space itself,” said Mayra Robles, Program Coordinator of Centro Hispano. “Centro before Covid was in a space upstairs in FUU. We had students coming together, but it felt like sardines in that room.”

When it was first founded, Centro had no office, budget or staff, while it now provides services for about 1000 people. Specially catered to students and staff of Hispanic and Latinx heritage, Centro Hispano was designed as a safe space and academic resource for the growing aforementioned communities on campus. Over the past decade, Robles was able to both observe and promote the enormous growth that the organization has gone through, such as the move from the small upstairs office to Centro’s current space, which is almost four times larger than the original.

“It was beautiful because they unified themselves in one space; they related with each other,” explained Robles. “Whether it was food, music or culture, they were able to ‘convivir’, meaning to live with one another.”

Robles first became involved with Centro Hispano in 2011-12 as a high schooler in the Mi Casa program. Once a student at UNCW, she regularly partook in a variety of activities, including Ritmo Latino, Centro Hispano Embajadores and as a federal work-study student. Robles credits the organization as a whole with helping her develop a positive relationship with her mental health, as well as providing a safe space for her to recharge.

Centro Hispano encourages students to complete their degrees at UNCW (Centro Hispano)

The Mi Casa program that first brought Robles to UNCW runs under Centro Hispano, and dates back to 2009, when a group of faculty and staff observed the need for Hispanic and Latinx teenagers to be provided with mentorship and guidance. A petition was subsequently submitted to generate funding for the program, with an iteration on community liaisons. What began as a cohort with only five participants has since developed into the involvement of 80 students, consisting of 40 high schoolers and 40 college mentors, with Mi Casa hosting a channel of communication with students and families that spreads to counties all over the state.

“Here in the tri-county area, the progress comes from the migrant communities,” noted Angel Garcia, who is Centro Hispano’s Assistant Director. Garcia has also been the Program Director of Mi Casa for 10 years, since its founding. “They didn’t necessarily have a support system for the children, especially in education. The whole goal was to encourage these high school students to explore education as a tool to improve their ways of living, and so I work with the families and high school counselors. It’s a robust and interdisciplinary program.”

In Mi Casa, select Hispanic high school sophomores in North Carolina who are chosen based on need, promise and determination are paired with a UNCW student, whose job is to provide mentorship and assistance throughout the college preparation process. Also provided in the program are seminars, tutoring, cultural enrichment activities and community involvement opportunities. The objective of Mi Casa is to help the high school participants progress into strong college admission candidates. While many go on to attend UNCW, alternative schools with former Mi Casa mentees are Elon University and UNC Chapel Hill, among others.

The program also provides the college mentors opportunities to step in and prevent situations that they had gone through in high school, such as procrastination and missing important application deadlines. Additionally, many mentors and mentees eventually become each other’s support systems and friends, as students can come from a variety of places where they may be the only Hispanic or Latinx individuals in their classroom.

“That can get a bit discouraging, a bit stressful and intimidating,” said Garcia. “And my mentors also go through that in college, where they have to navigate spaces where they are one of few people of color. They support one another, when it comes to navigating white systems. Those are the most organic ways of mentoring.”

Another similar program offered is the Centro Hispano Embajadores (CHE), which is a student organization focused on keeping youth in the Hispanic and Latinx communities informed about post-secondary educational opportunities. Unlike Mi Casa, which focuses on individual mentorship, the Embajadores lead and participate in group activities with primarily high school seniors in the Wilmington area.

Centro Hispano assists and encourages students to become strong leaders and achieve academically. (Centro Hispano)

Rosa Sierra Flores is the president of CHE and a junior at UNCW. She has been participating in Centro Hispano since being a freshman, when she got introduced to the organization during that year’s involvement carnival. Her goal in being a part of CHE is to encourage students to keep pursuing education through outreach and partnerships with schools like the GLOW Academy.

“[GLOW Academy] reached out to us knowing that we help students, and so far, we’ve done really well,” said Flores on CHE’s partnership with the local charter school. “Last Wednesday we had a FAFSA night, so we went to GLOW Academy and helped them fill out the FAFSA, and we had more than 50 students in attendance. It was a very successful night.”

All facets of Centro Hispano came together on Sept. 14 to celebrate the kickoff of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15. What began as a commemorative week in 1968 to celebrate the generations of Hispanic Americans in the US and their influence on our country was extended to a month-long period and enacted into federal law on Aug. 17, 1988.

At UNCW, the kickoff celebration featured games, food, music and a visit from Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo. Many students wore heritage jerseys or painted their faces with their heritage flag and used the kickoff as an outlet for personal authenticity.

A common sentiment shared amongst Robles, Garcia and Flores is that Centro Hispano isn’t a space for exclusively Hispanic or Latinx students. Although the center caters to those communities, they believe that having people of different origins as well would be beneficial, as long as they remain respectful and can keep an open mind.

“Come to Centro,” said Garcia. “Come to the identity centers. You do not have to be Latinx or Hispanic or speak Spanish fluently to take advantage of Centro Hispano. We believe in creating pathways for the Latinx community, but that responsibility should be shared by all, and the only way that we create that shared responsibility is when we all work together. I want everybody to know that you are welcome to come to Centro.”