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Reducing anti-Latinx bias on campus, a Q&A with Cassie Zamora-Cathcart

In this 18-month project, University Communications reached out to campus experts to provide content for these Q&As based on their academic and/or lived experience. These Q&As are part of a larger series. They do not represent the official position of the University of Utah and are provided for educational purposes.

Cassie Zamora-Cathcart is the director of the University of Utah’s Center for Equity and Student Belonging (CESB). She is passionate about connecting with, giving back to, amplifying the voices of, and celebrating her community and all BIPOC communities.

Editors note: The terms Latinx, Latine and Latinidad are used interchangeably throughout this piece to acknowledge the various identity terms used within this community. 

To contextualize this conversation about race and bias on campus, what are important things to understand about the history of Latinx people in the United States?

Latinx people are a dynamic group of folks and we come from a variety of different places—from Mexico through Central America and all across South America. Our community is not a monolith. There are differences by country and differences by region in those countries. And people have other intersecting identities that shape them.

Latine identity is a very complex issue. There is a prominent misconception that being Latinx is a racial identity when in reality it is a cultural and ethnic identity. There are people from all racial backgrounds who identify as Latine. Folks who are Latinx may have indigenous heritage, or identify as Black or part of the African Diaspora. They may not identify as Native American or Black, but regions overlap and history has had a large impact on many Latin American countries. It’s not uncommon for there to be some shared ancestry across those identities.

When we talk about the history of Latinidad people in the United States, it’s important to note how the borders of the country have changed over time. A very large portion of what we now consider the U.S. was historically owned by Mexico. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States and the Rio Grande River was established as the southern border of the U.S. This means that many Mexican Americans became American citizens simply because the border moved. This is the case for my family.

It is also important to note that the United States government has played a role in why people need to leave their homes in Latin America. Since the early 19th century, the United States has influenced political affairs and economic policy across Latin America, especially throughout the Cold War. It’s really important that we take responsibility and ownership of this.

The other big historical piece is the caste system European colonizers introduced. This caste system still impacts our community and the way we engage with each other today through colorism.

The legacy of slavery impacted Central and South America as well. Many communities in Latin America are heavily influenced by African culture and the forced diaspora caused by slavery, such as the Dominican Republic and regions of Mexico.

Would you like to add anything else about Utah’s history?

In Utah, there are very large and thriving Latinx community that is comprised of Mexican, Salvadorian, Peruvian, Guatemalan, Venezuelan and many other communities. Our dynamic Latine population in our state is really reflective of our large refugee population

The diversity of Utah’s Latinx community is very beautiful. There can be challenges because of this diversity, but I think it comes with more beauty than anything else.

What are common stereotypes, assumptions, and microaggressions?

It is interesting having moved to Utah from Texas because my wife and I have been on the receiving end of more overt, verbal racism here than we ever were in Texas. My wife has a darker skin tone than I do and matches more of people’s assumptions of what Latinx people “look like.” Because of this, it’s not uncommon for folks to make racist assumptions about her. She is called many slurs, often just in passing at places like the grocery store.

Assumptions are also made based on the passports people have. I have had a story shared with me of a person who is from another country and assumptions were made that this person was here with an undocumented status. I have heard of folks trying to use their passport to have their age verified, but having businesses not accepting that passport to verify. Passports are legal documents and cannot be declined as a form of identification.

Because of intersecting identities in the Latinidad community, some microaggressions or slurs happen within the community. And it’s important to note that if someone calls me a slur, that’s not a microaggression; that’s just being racist.

In the classroom, our students face microaggressions every day. This happens when people are asked to share about the Latinx experience or the BIPOC experience. I can’t speak for all Latine or BIPOC people for example.

I also want to note that a lot of our Latinx students here on campus are very big advocates on both campus and in the community at large. I think activism is really tied with Latinx American identities and because of that, we have a lot of students who are out there really fighting to make a difference around these areas.

How can people be better allies to the Latinx members of our campus community?

It is important to note that none of us are perfect. We’re all at some point or another going to say something really stupid and really harmful to others. If you ever get called out, it’s important to focus on the fact that you caused harm, not to defend your intention.

Take ownership of the harm you caused and offer a genuine and sincere apology. Then do the work to educate yourself so you don’t ever do that again.

If you are an outside observer and you see someone experience a racist act, make sure the person is OK and that they can get to a safe place before responding to the person who is being problematic. You don’t want to cause more harm through your actions and the most important thing to do is make sure the person who was targeted is OK. When that person is in a safe space, then you can have a conversation with the person who caused the harm. If it happens at the university, make sure to report it to the Racist and Biased Incident Report Team (RBIRT) as so they can make sure the action is tracked and the person is held accountable. 

There are a lot of resources for expanding our knowledge. If students want to formally study issues related to race and identity, they can do so in the School of Social and Cultural Transformation where they can major or minor in ethnic studies and there is a track specific to the Latine experience.

A less formal option is participating in programming on campus. A lot of our programming through the Center and Equity and Belonging is meant to create a community space for Latinx folks, rather than to educate others. These events are open to all—especially people who come with open hearts and minds. While the purpose of these spaces is not to educate people, it is a space where people can come to experience, connect, and participate. Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month also is a great opportunity to engage in community and cultural festivals.

If you’d like a book to read, I recommend “Borderlands/La Frontera” by Gloria Anzaldúa. This is a cross-language book written in both Spanish and English. Spanish is not my first language and I read it in college before I had a better grasp of Spanish and I still took a lot away from it.