Wilson Plaza bustled with activity the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 9, resembling more of a vibrant town square than a university quad. Decorated communal eating areas surrounded a stage on which UCLA’s Mariachi de Uclatlán ensemble joyfully played. From beneath two large canopies, delicious-smelling food was doled out by popular local eateries Pinches Tacos and El Zunzal Pupuseria.

Students, faculty, staff, alumni and families arrived in a celebratory mood, many coming in groups and excitedly joining friends or ushering over new peers as they ate or browsed the large resource fair, learning about the courses, programs and organizations available to them across campus.

UCLA’s Latinx Welcome, this year titled “Creciendo Nuestro Futuro” (“Growing our Future”), featured several speakers, among them Chancellor Gene Block; Carina Salazar, executive director for career and immersive experiences; and Elizabeth Gonzalez, the inaugural director of UCLA’s Hispanic-Serving Institution initiative. Gonzalez’s team, which is driving UCLA’s efforts to earn the federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025, were the main sponsors of the event.

Other sponsors included UCLA External Affairs, UCLA College Division of Social Sciences, UCLA Student Affairs and the Division of Undergraduate Education.

“The theme ‘Growing Our Future’ — which I think fits exactly with what we’re trying to do at UCLA — recognizes the impact of the Latinx community and that we’re growing our future leaders here,” Block told the roughly 2,000 attendees.

As a Hispanic-Serving Institution, UCLA would be eligible for a range of federal grants to bolster educational programs, research training and academic attainment for Latino, low-income and other underrepresented students. For UCLA to be designated an HSI, 25% of its students must identify as Latino and 35% of all undergraduates must be Pell Grant recipients. 

“We're hiring faculty and postdocs with ties to Latinx life, hiring staff to support Latinx students, seed grants for scholarships tied to the study of Latinx populations and the HSI Fellows Program,” Block said. “We’ll have all the types of confidence and support that makes this the most attractive institution in the country for Latinx students to study.”

From left: Carina Salazar, Chancellor Gene Block, Alfred Herrera and Elizabeth Gonzalez at Latinx Welcome event.
David Esquivel/UCLA
From left: Carina Salazar; Chancellor Gene Block; Alfred Herrera, former director of the UCLA Center for Community College Partnerships; and Elizabeth Gonzalez.

One person experiencing these efforts on the ground is second-year student Yvette Mendez, who says an increasing number of Chicano studies course offerings have been catching her eye. The first-generation college student and member of the Latina-based academic sorority Lambda Theta Alpha said she and her peers have also benefited from the presence of more Latino faculty. 

“Discovering a little bit more about your history and your background and seeing that information come from faculty who can relate … I think that’s the most eye-opening experience overall,” she said.

Mendez was among those working at booths at the event, showing attendees all that UCLA has to offer Latino students. Rows of tables, each garnished with bundles of orange marigold flowers, invited students to learn about clubs, organizations and other resources focused on helping Latino students build community, including the Chicano Studies Research Center and the Academic Advancement Program.

“What we’re doing today is building community, and that will take us far,” Gonzalez said to the attendees, who were enjoying burritos and pupusas, a Central American flatbread with filling, at communal tables.

“Family and community are at the center of the culture — what makes our heritage and our values what they are,” said senior Jonathan Valenzuela Mejia, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council and a speaker at the event. “UCLA becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution will bring about many changes. A new era in which family and community can become integral to the fabric of the campus will begin.”

A large crowd of students and others sings and dances in UCLA's Wilson Plaza.
David Esquivel/UCLA
Wilson Plaza becomes a dance floor, with Latinx Welcome attendees singing and dancing to a song played by the DJ.

Valenzuela Mejia stressed that UCLA’s progress towards the designation, especially given its standing as the No. 1–ranked public university in the nation, should be celebrated by all Bruins, and by UCLA’s Latino community in particular. Attendees appeared to take this to heart, flocking to the plaza’s center after the speeches to dance to DJ music and mariachi performances.

The onset of the song “No Rompas Mi Corazón” by Mexican band Caballo Dorado caused an eruption of loud cheers as attendees fluidly assembled into formation to perform a well-known line dance associated with the song.

“The music that's playing and the culture — it reminds people of home and family,” said incoming graduate student Adrián Alejandro Chávez, who was joined by his service dog-in-training, Haki.

In anticipation of the event, Chávez, who is hearing-impaired, made a small poncho for Haki out of a serape from his home state of Jalisco, Mexico. Chávez says Haki helps to bring visibility to his invisible disability, and he’s hopeful such visibility can help him build community during his first year at UCLA — similar to the sense of community he was so clearly enjoying with his Latino peers.

“It’s physically holding space on campus, celebrating each other, honoring each other, respecting each other and loving each other,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing. Seeing more people that look like us and who come from similar backgrounds is incredibly important.”

A medium-sized brown down, named Haki, is shown at the Latinx Welcome event wearing a small poncho made out of a colorful sarape from Mexico.
David Esquivel/UCLA
In anticipation of the event, graduate student Adrián Alejandro Chávez made a small poncho for his dog Haki out of a serape.