Located on the first floor of Carlton, El Centro is an immersion space on campus for Latinx and Hispanic students to feel supported, according to Center of Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education Director Sylvia Muñoz.
Muñoz said she remembers former university President J. Fred Young tossing around the idea of a place where students could speak Spanish freely.
“He saw that a lot of students had taken three, four or more years of spanish and they were not continuing it. So he said, what if we can have a space at the university, where students can actually come in and talk Spanish,” said Muñoz.
Muñoz said she came to Alamance county from Costa Rica in 1995 to teach for one year. In her free time, Muñoz said she would teach Spanish to the Board of Trustees and Young. She said Young shared his idea of an immersion space that would soon become El Centro de Español.
“I thought it was a great idea. I thought it was also a bit crazy,” Muñoz said, “At that moment, I was like, how would you even start something like that?”
Muñoz said she had to return to Costa Rica after her one year of teaching ended. She said she got a call two weeks later from Young offering her the job of overseeing the project. After she accepted the position, Muñoz said she waited ten months for a visa. Muñoz said she was finally able to get on board and lead El Centro de Español in 1998.
With the help of students who had recently returned from their study abroad programs, Muñoz said she came up with the idea to start El Centro’s first tradition, conversation classes. Muñoz said she and a few others hand-picked 40 faculty and staff to test out if the conversation classes were successful and, in turn, hoped that the staff would promote the classes.
“We started on the first floor of Moseley, right across from the front desk. It was a small room,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said that she would bring coffee and bake tres leches as people practiced Spanish. She said the trial run of conversation classes were successful and she was ready to bring students into the mix.
“The whole idea was students will not get any credit for it, but at the same time, it was more of an immersion program with the university,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said she noticed Elon was getting more of an influx of international students visiting El Centro de Español when it was just a language center. In 2002, El Centro de Español moved out of Moseley to Carlton. Muñoz said she also began to notice that more U.S. born and raised Latinx and Hispanic students were attending Elon.
“I started asking the question, who’s supporting them?” Muñoz said.
She said that U.S. born Latinx and Hispanic students felt intimidated by El Centro de Español due to the language component. As a result, Muñoz said she started a working group with other faculty and staff where they came together to brainstorm ideas on how to further support Latinx and Hispanic students.
Muñoz said in order to remedy this issue El Centro de Español became part of the multicultural center, now CREDE, in 2014 and she continued to focus on strategies to support Latinx and Hispanic students. In 2016, she worked with faculty and staff to do research on what other universities were doing to help support their Latinx and Hispanic students. That’s when Muñoz said she decided to change El Centro from a language based center to a Latinx Hispanic cultural center.
“We changed the name to El Centro instead of El Centro de Español,” Muñoz said. “We changed the logo, we changed the mission and the vision without moving away from the language because that’s part of the identity as well.”
Muñoz said that El Centro got its big break when it got remodeled in 2021. Muñoz said more students from all different backgrounds – not only Latinx and Hispanic students – began to visit the center.Many students regardless of background go to popular events that El Centro hosts like Café con Leche that happens once a month where students can socialize while eating culturally significant latin food. El Centro hosts other events, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month, such as Gala Latina, an awards dinner where people can enjoy delicious food and dance.
Junior Jose Torres-Reyes is a student coordinator at El Centro and first visited the center during his freshman year.
“It has given me a space that I feel comfortable in and I can come in and be myself,” Reyes said.
MJ Larrazabal ’21, the assistant director of CREDE, was once a graduate student at Elon. Larrazabal said as a student she found El Centro as a safe haven and would attend the conversation classes to practice her Spanish. After graduation, Larrazabal said she saw the position was open and jumped at the chance.
“I was like, ‘I need to go back,’ because I wasn’t done with El Centro. I wasn’t done with Elon,” Larrazabal said.
Since returning to Elon, Lazarrabal said she has been focusing on bringing more graduate students into El Centro. She said she noticed those students rarely visited when she was still in her graduate program. She is also working with Muñoz and other members of El Centro to “revamp” their events.
“We’ve been revamping some of our events,” Lazzabal said, “I think that there were events that we were doing yearly because they were successful, but ... I never want to get comfortable. I want to continue growing.”
Larrazabal said that El Centro staff are going to try and revitalize conversation classes and have an even bigger Carnival celebration, since last year’s was so successful. Larrazabal said she is excited for this year after seeing many freshmen wanting to know more about Latinx and Hispanic language and culture getting involved with El Centro.
Larrazabal said that through her time as a student at Elon, and now as CREDE’s assistant director, El Centro has helped her find and build community on campus.
“I don’t have my family here, so when I think about my Latinx, Hispanic family, I think of all of you,” Larrazabal said.