IU’s Latino Legacy

The Latino Cultural Center, also known as La Casa, opened in 1973. For the first three years, it was located just off Atwater Avenue on the south side of campus. In 1976, the cultural center was relocated to its current home on Seventh Street across from the Indiana Memorial Union. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

In 1973, the Office of Latino Affairs was established at IU Bloomington. With Horacio Lewis serving as director, four principles guided the OLA’s work: empowerment, diversity, belonging, and persistence.

“That position will forever stay close to my heart,” Lewis wrote in correspondence with his successor Alberto Torchinsky. “We drew a lot of blood to get this program started, but it was an honor to hold a position in which Latino students felt empowered on campus.”

That same year, thanks to the advocacy of George Taliaferro, BS’51, special assistant to IU President John Ryan, the Latino Cultural Center—better known as La Casa—opened its doors. Jorge Wehby, BA’70, MA’72, MA’74, a Cuban immigrant, was the center’s first director.

In a report to President John Ryan, MA/PhD’59, LHD’88, Taliaferro recommended six ways to improve the Latino experience on campus. Two became a reality—the establishment of La Casa and the inclusion of Latino students in The Groups Scholars Program. La Casa represented a major attempt by the Office of Latino Affairs to provide a comfortable and supportive environment for Latino students, ultimately helping with enrollment and attrition rates.

“[The creation of La Casa proved] that the administration had finally acknowledged a Latino presence at IU,” Felipe Sanchez, BA’73, JD’76, wrote to Torchinsky when asked to reflect on his time at IU Bloomington.

Roughly 25 years later, IU Bloomington Chancellor Kenneth R. R. Gros Louis, LHD’01, asked Charlie Nelms, MS’71, EdD’77, LHD’19, who at the time was chancellor of the University of Michigan-Flint, to undertake a review of the programs and services designed to recruit, retain, and graduate underrepresented student groups. Nelms formed a multi-racial review team of educators from across the country and produced the “20/20 Plan: A Vision for Achieving Equity & Excellence.”

As a result, the Office of Latino Affairs closed its doors in 1999 and merged with several other minority offices to form the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs. That same year, the Latino Studies Program was established, and La Casa reopened after a $200,000 renovation project.

Similar to IU’s Black History Makers, there were several alumni and faculty members whose “firsts” challenged cultural norms, sparked change, and broke down barriers. Keep reading to find out who played a part in making IU Bloomington a more inclusive and accommodating campus for the Latino community.


1910

Lucius Rivera, MD 1910, was the first Latino to earn a degree from Indiana University. He went on to become a surgeon in his home country of Honduras.

Photo courtesy of IU Archives

1917

Josephine (Grima) Comstock, GN 1917, was the first student from Mexico to enroll at IU and the first-known Latina to earn a degree. Additionally, she was one of the first nursing students to graduate from the IU School of Medicine’s Training School for Nurses in Indianapolis.

Comstock went on to serve in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War I. You can read more about her in an IU Archives blog.

Photo courtesy of IU Archives

1996

Mezcla was the first Latino team to participate in the Little 500 bike race. The team—which consisted of Jerry Gutièrrez, BS’99; Ben Abney, BS’98; Derrick Espadas, ’97; Gus Chavez, BA’97; Sergio Magan̂a, BS’01, BGS’08; and Erik Teter, BS’99—was sponsored by La Casa and coached by Carl Doninger, BS’96. In the 1996 race, Mezcla placed 31st and completed a total of 176 out of 200 laps.

You can read more about the team in an IU Archives blog.

Mezcla means mixture in Spanish. Lillian Casillas, BA’89, MS’98, the current La Casa director, says the name felt appropriate since the Mezcla riders were adding to the “mix of people” involved in the race. The 1996 bike team pictured left to right: Jerry Gutièrrez, Derrick Espades, Ben Abney, Erik Teter, Gus Chavez, and Carl Doninger. Photo courtesy of La Casa. 

2000

Cecilia Vaca, BA’96, became the first president of the Indiana University Latino Alumni Association.

Headshot of Cecilia Vaca
Photo courtesy of Cecilia Vaca

That same year, Gerardo Gonzalez became the first Latino dean of a school on any IU campus. Gonzalez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 11 years old, served as dean of the School of Education at IU Bloomington for 15 years.

Photo courtesy of Indiana University

2002

Cynthia (Valentin) Duany, BA’06, became the first Latina to be offered an IU basketball scholarship. She went on to play professional basketball in Puerto Rico and Israel.

Photo courtesy of IU Athletics

2003

Jose Guadalupe Valtierra, JD’82, MS’84, was the first recipient of the Distinguished Latino Alumni Award. The award recognizes Latino alumni who have contributed to the IU community, their hometown, or state, and have been outstanding in their career field. At the time, Valtierra was chancellor of Ivy Tech’s northwest Indiana region, which included the community college’s campuses in Gary, East Chicago, Michigan City, and Valparaiso.

“From community service to his professional life and dedication to educating all citizens, no other alumnus could be more worthy to be recognized as Indiana University’s first Distinguished Latino Alumni Award recipient,” said Gerardo Gonzalez, dean emeritus of the IU School of Education.

Jose Guadalupe Valtierra, right, poses with Sharon Stephens Brehm, former IU Bloomington Chancellor, at the Latino Alumni Reunion Luncheon in 2003. Courtesy photo.
Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.