Domino Perez

Maria Villalpando speaks at a panel held by the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies on Monday. The panel focused on the party guest said was “Border Patrol” themed that Texas Fiji held Feb. 7.
Photo Credit: Carlo Nasisse | Daily Texan Staff

On Monday, a panel of UT faculty and students discussed the University’s decision not to take punitive action against Texas Fiji after its Feb. 7 party guests said was “border patrol” themed.

“I’m not satisfied,” Domino Perez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, said. “I want more to be done. I want more to be done so everyone on campus can feel safe, and students don’t have to be the subject of hurtful displays.”

The Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies held a forum to discuss the University’s decision to not punish the fraternity. 

The fraternity’s party was intended to have a “Western” theme, according to Fiji president Andrew Campbell. Many attendees wore sombreros, ponchos and construction hats with names such as “Jefe” and “Pablo Sanchez” written on them. 

Days after the party, the Office of the Dean of Students opened a formal investigation into the party but decided not to take action. Soncia Reagins-Lilly, senior associate vice president for the Dean of Students, said last week in an interview with the Texan that the fraternity did not violate any University rules.

“While we are limited to specific jurisdiction for off-campus private parties, we are not limited to growth and learning taking place,” Reagins-Lilly said. “We are proud of our students for holding each other accountable and continuing to conduct dialogue.”

Panelists at the forum were all members of the UT Latino community. Approximately 19 percent of students enrolled to the University in 2013 were Hispanic, according to the University’s Institutional Reporting, Research and Information Systems. 

“How could you behave this way with such a large Latino population?” Perez said. “Asking if the costume or the behavior is racist isn’t the question. … We need to be asking why that behavior is permissible.” 

The fraternity has reached out to members of Latino Community Affairs in order to understand what it can do to make the situation better, according to Maria Villalpando, a member of the organization. Campbell did not respond to multiple requests for a comment. 

The University’s response to Fiji’s party was inadequate compared to the recent action taken by the University of Oklahoma against its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, according to Yolanda Munoz, an applied learning and development junior. OU severed ties with SAE after a video surfaced Sunday showing members of the fraternity chanting anti-black racial slurs. 

“UT is being bashed all over because UT administration didn’t respond quickly enough and didn’t really do anything,” Munoz said. “But it’s a tricky question since [the fraternity] is off campus. … At what point does the administration draw the line?”

Educating fraternity members about the effect of mocking minority cultures is the most effective way to prevent offensive theme parties, according to Perez. 

“I don’t need you to be sensitive. I need you to not be racist,” Perez said. “The way to not be racist is to educate yourself and not be ignorant. This is a community where students should feel safe.”

The Center for Mexican American Studies may become its own department if plans are approved in November and an advisory committee finds adequate funding sources.

The center would become the Department of Mexican-American and Latino Studies. Domino Perez, associate professor and director of the center, said the major obstacle to implementing the center’s plan is finding funding. 

“We understand that in order to become the nation’s premier department of Mexican-American and Latino studies and for our future growth, we will need substantial funding,” Perez said in an email. “Therefore, we need to be entrepreneurial in locating resources to fund these efforts.”

Perez said the departmentalization committee conducted its first meeting Friday to discuss funding efforts. 

The center could departmentalize by 2015 if its plan is approved in November. Perez said that the change would coincide with the center’s planned move to the Geography Building from its current home in Burdine Hall. The center moved into Burdine in July.

The UT System Board of Regents approved a second expansion of the Geography Building and increased the total cost of the construction project to $15.5 million in August, making room for the center to move into the building upon its completion in March 2015.

Perez said the regents have since cut the construction project by $1 million earlier this month.

“They cut the budget of the expansion after determining that the overall combined cost per square footage of both the renovation and expansion was too high,” Perez said in an email. “There are other buildings on campus with much higher per square footage costs.”

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the regents, who have held two special meetings this month, have not taken any action on the building project since they approved its expansion in August.

The center received a blow in June when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed part of a bill authored by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, that would have given $1.5 million to the center. The bill would have offset some large cuts to its budget from the 2011 legislative session. Perez said Perry’s veto has not trampled departmentalization efforts.

“It was never going to be the primary source of funding for our efforts. What it did do inadvertently was spark interest, locally and across the country, in our departmentalization efforts,” Perez said. “People are watching UT closely, hoping it will to lead and shape future conversations and research about the fastest growing demographic in the country.”

The center is currently funded and taught by multiple departments. After its proposed departmentalization, the program would be part of the College of Liberal Arts. 

Richard Flores, College of Liberal Arts associate dean, said the college is working toward this end despite funding issues. The center received $138,578 through the College of Liberal Arts during the 2012-13 academic year, according to the University’s Budget Office’s website.

“[Departmentalization] remains a priority of the college; the only question is how to fund it,” Flores said.

Free Minds Project Director Viv Griffith leads her students on a tour of the Blanton poetry project on Thursday evening.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Tari Jordan wants to teach elementary school English, and Free Minds, a program administrated out of UT, is helping her to do it.

“I thought I knew so much already,” Jordan said. “I don’t want it to end. I love the professors.”

Jordan, a mother of two, said the program should help her go to college and pursue her dream. Free Minds’ free humanities course, which she is enrolled in, took a field trip to UT this weekend in a bid to draw inspiration from the Blanton Museum’s collection. The seven-year-old program is a collaboration between the University’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, Austin Community College and Foundation Communities. 

“We want them to become comfortable being on a college campus and to feel that they belong there,” program director Vive Griffith said. “The resources at UT are theirs to explore and use.”

Free Minds aims to help its students, some of whom have never been in a college class, advance themselves in their career paths and lives by using its lessons to potentially go on to education elsewhere. The group hosts a bi-weekly nine-month course at the M Station apartments in East Austin, where two UT professors, two ACC professors and one UT graduate writing student spend both semesters teaching literature, philosophy, history, creative writing and sometimes drama.

“We’re looking for motivation, and then we’re looking for need,” Griffith said. “We’re targeting the people who have barriers in front of them.”

To qualify, students must have a GED or high school diploma and be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. They must then write an essay and go through an interview for a shot at being a member of the 25-student course.

Griffith, who teaches creative writing in the course, said visiting the Blanton Museum is an opportunity to help with her lesson. Students were expected to write their own poetry on a piece of art after reading and seeing examples.

Teachers in the program say they have learned from their students.

Domino Perez, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, associate English professor and a three-time teacher for the course’s literature unit, said she gets a different perspective from her students and admires how hard they work.

“Working with people who have not had equal access to education has been humbling. Their mindset is completely different,” Perez said. “They teach me how to see familiar literature in new and exciting ways.” 

Perez said she hopes students see themselves from a different perspective as well.

“I want them to think about themselves as students,” Perez said. “As critical thinkers engaging the world around them.”

Published on March 25, 2013 as "Low-income program increases opportunities". 

Students and faculty voiced their opinions in favor of the Center for Mexican American Studies to become a department within the College of Liberal Arts at a forum Wednesday.

The center offers undergraduate, graduate, masters and doctoral programs in Mexican American Studies funded and taught by multiple departments. If the center becomes part of the College of Liberal Arts, professors, lecturers and classes would be under one department.

Center director Domino Perez said the center turned down the opportunity as recently as three years ago when the center was under a different director.

“We were asked to imagine a plan where departmentalization is the finish line,” Perez said. “Historically, the center has been resistant. They did not want to be confined to any one college.”

Perez said after UT President William Powers Jr. asked her in January to consider plans for the center’s future and departmentalization, she drafted a preliminary plan to departmentalize within the next 10 years, although it may not take that long to accomplish. She said the center tends to focus on yearly goals, including classes and community outreach, rather than a long-term mission for the center’s future.

Perez said her proposal for the department includes a borderlands research institute that would focus on the Texas-Mexico border, although there are no specific plans yet.

Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said he favors departmentalization if students and faculty want the center to move in that direction.

“I believe building on our core strength, and given our geographical location, we have the opportunity to be the best center for Mexican American studies in the country,” Diehl said. “As the dean, it would be idiotic not to be fully supportive.”

This was the third forum hosted by the center this semester, intended to gauge what goals students and faculty want the center to have for the future. Before Wednesday’s talk, separate forums were held for students and faculty to discuss their thoughts on the center’s future, without the center or college administrators present to encourage an honest discussion.

Associate journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez said that during the faculty forum, departmentalization was not the topic of conversation, although it should have been. She said the center should ask for the faculty’s opinions before making the decision.

“I feel bad that we weren’t a part of that conversation three years ago,” Rivas-Rodriguez said. “I would like for us to be asked that question, and I would like for us to vote on it. I would like for us to say, ‘these are the advantages and disadvantages,’ and have that discussion so it’s not just reflective of one person at the helm.”

She said the center will host a student and faculty planning session Jan. 11 to further discuss the option of departmentalizing.