Life At Amherst College If you are one of those broad-minded people, who trace the charisma in the lines of Rabindranath’s ‘Gitanjali’, but also eagerly wait for the new edition of SciTech Daily to read the news on emerging AI, if you are one of those passionate seekers of knowledge who believe in the growth in liberal education, an intersection between arts and STEM, then you must have heard about Amherst College.
One of the most prestigious and elite liberal arts colleges in the nation, Amherst College was founded in 1821. Like any other elite college in the US, Amherst College is also reputed for its smart student body and the impressive inclusivity and diversity among the student body. Being home to approximately 2000 students each year, the Amherst student body is incredibly diverse. Statistically, students of 66 nationalities represent their countries on the campus. Approximately, 13% of the students are of Latino or Hispanic race.
Now as the title of the essay suggests, when we refer to the word ‘place’, what actually comes up in our mind? A piece of land? A location of any specific incident? Yes, these statements do go with the definition of the word ‘place’. But ‘place’ is not only a physical existence where we live or create incidents. One cannot live in a place just for its space and capacity. One needs to belong to that place to live in it. Just the way wild animals cannot live in a bustling city, a civilized human also cannot live in a jungle. All the creatures on earth are in constant symbiotic and mutualistic relationships with the places where they live.
To make a place, to belong in a place, we need to establish our roots there through recognizing our cultural, political and social rights. Sometimes to establish our foundation, we need to start movements when the predominant authorities do not recognize our rights. The Latino and Hispanic students at Amherst College had to go through a similar revolutionary phase to make everyone acknowledge their cultural identity. My essay aims to portray Amherst college’s history regarding the long struggle of the Hispanic students for inclusion and to trace the process of cultural and economic diversification that took place from the late 1970s to today.
The journey began when the two of the five Hispanic freshmen in 1972, Les Purificación and Tomás Gonzáles, created a Latino student organization named La Causa collaborating with Edmundo Orozco (class of 1974), to foster community and advocate for recruiting more Hispanic students. In 1972, Edmundo, with the help of then Dean Eugene Wilson and his successor Edward Ed Wall, started traveling the country to search for promising low-income Hispanic students. During that time, college authorities just started to care for and prioritize their reputation as an inclusive place.
To materialize that aim and remark on them as the advocates of social progression, colleges and universities tried to attract the best black students from all over the country. Amherst College was one of the first colleges to extend that aim towards low-income Hispanic students.
According to the organization’s charter, La Causa’s aim was to create a viable Latino social, cultural and political body while promoting and working for Latino student recruitment.
But at that time, the place of Amherst College fostered a predominantly white supremacist male student body who made it clear to the group of Latino students and some transfer female students that they were not welcome to the campus.
Their ascendant and discriminatory attitude towards people of other races and females was a big social barrier. Majority of the White students primarily spotlighted La Causa as a separatist group trying to get unfair advantages. Rick Lopez, a renowned historian and a scholar on Latin American Studies, was there at that time to observe these incidents and proactively participate in helping the student activists and members of La Causa to get recognized. He states in his comprehensive article “Creating a Place of Latinidad at an Elite Liberal Arts College” that the editors of the Amherst Student (the newspaper of Amherst College)
characterized the Latino group as a threat to the college. They wanted to impose restrictions on community student groups like La Causa, insisting that these small groups needed to be observed carefully so that they did not participate in any student activities that might have undermined the sense of community. Even the members of the radio station, WAMH, were explicit in their racism towards Hispanic and Latino students. They prohibited playing nonwhite music on weekdays. One of the Latino students, Ed Camacho (class of 1979) recalled that faculty and administrators and fellow white students looked down on low-income Latino students like him, discrediting them as ethnic tokens.
Even though the college nurtured a dominant White student body, the racial discriminations were not uniformly conducted by the White students. Many White peers supported the Hispanic students on the campus, respected their identity and supported their cause. One notable example is David O. Russell (class of 1981). According to Lopez’s essay, David quoted,
“I am a white male from a relatively affluent background. . . . If I feel alienated, then one can imagine how the real minorities must feel.” He asked: “Will students at Amherst give minorities an office and hope they’ll shut up? Will students tell minorities, in more ways than one, to transfer? Or will the majority of affluent preppy whites at Amherst be receptive to different people and work to change and enlighten themselves socially, racially, sexually, and economically?” David’s rectitude shows that the problem of racism cannot be correlated directly with the White people. It is more about the cultural and educational environments people grow up in. Rather, Camacho recalls that Dean James Bishop, an African American, did not understand the Black and Hispanic students’ motivation and struggle. He perceived they were separating themselves from the rest of the campus and discouraged them to take part in protesting activities.
The college authority often acted as a silent spectator regarding many of these discriminations which really portrays the fact that these minority students were hired more to boost the reputation of the college than to create a proper place for their education and growth. In 1977, the Student Allocations Committee (SAC) announced they would defund La Causa.
Even the administration authority which included Dean of Faculty, Prosser Gifford, had been hostile towards the Latino students when they turned in for support. Lopez wrote in his essay, “Camacho remembered that when he and other Latinos reached out to Dean Gifford in 1972 for support, he accused them of trying to separate themselves from the rest of the student body” though La Causa welcomed people from all races and economic backgrounds. The reason it was created as a group specifically for Latino students as this was the place where Latino students could broaden their understanding of what it meant to be Latino while helping them feel enough of a sense of belonging on campus.
John Ward, 14th President of Amherst College (1972-1979), was one of the few administrative supporters of La Causa.
But even he neglected the responsibilities towards Latino students. From Lopez’s essay, in 1976, Ward had promised La Causa members to provide all kinds of help for a Latino cultural center but did not act according to his promise even after two years. In 1978, La Causa quietly occupied his office to affirm their demands. Even after that the administration failed to provide the support for developing and communicating cultural diversity to minorities like Latino students though they were obligated to fulfill that responsibility. In mid
November 1978, President Ward announced his resignation from his position, almost nullifying the probability of getting a cultural center for La Causa. As a result, on Wednesday, December 6, 1978, approximately thirty students walked into the Amherst College snack bar in Fayerweather Hall and began a three-day sit-in that swelled to one hundred activists (Lopez, 133). Finally,
President Ward granted La Causa members with a former art classroom in Fayerweather Hall as a Latino cultural center, promising that should a larger room become available, La Causa would have gotten priority. The cultural center was opened in 1979 and named after famous Cuban essayist and poet José Martí as he resembled the icon of ‘universal revolutionary struggle,’ the similar type of struggle La Causa members had to undergo in securing the cultural center. After the construction of the Keefe Campus Center in 1987, the student activists compelled the administration to keep true to its promise to move the Centro Cultural José Martí to the new building.
Securing the cultural center did not put an end to the macroaggressions the Latino students were experiencing over years; rather, they were confronted with severe backlashes from some white students who viewed minorities as interlopers tearing at the foundation of Amherst culture. The editors of the Amherst Student kept referring to the actions of Latino students as separatist attitudes and hostility towards the majority culture. A member of the class of 1979 accused minorities of taking advantage of white people’s tolerance and posing a “separatist” threat.
He concluded “Blacks and Latinos don’t want equal treatment. It is abundantly clear that they want preferential treatment. . .. It’s time to say, ‘Enough! (Lopez, 137)’” Not only the Hispanics but students of other minority races faced similar consequences for just having different skin colors than white even though they all were ‘humans’ with blood of the same color. Walter Harris (class of 1979) wrote, “I certainly have never been accepted here as an individual. I am constantly reminded of my blackness, by whites in a hundred ways and on a daily basis. . .. The blunt reality is that we are perceived by the white community not as individuals, but as Blacks, Latinos, or Asians, i.e., collectively as members of a group. Racism at Amherst is a collective problem requiring a collective solution.”
The Fayerweather sit-in incident demonstrates that it was not a movement for any single race but a collective revolution for all minorities to make a place, to establish their cultural roots, to solidify their existence at Amherst College. Even though the sit-in was specifically aimed to secure a place for Latino cultural centers, people of other minority races could relate to the Latino students’ struggles as it went parallel with their own struggles too. The sense of making a place to belong tied everyone into a string of unity and morality.
Amherst College Digital Collections is a website that contains some captivating photos of the Fayerweather sit-in which capture the epitome of the incident. These photos help us to extend our thinking potentiality and to visualize things to get a firm understanding of the situation at that time.
The above images (collected from Amherst College Digital Collections) illustrate that not only Latino students but also the Black students actively participated in the Fayerweather movement. In the first photo, we can see only black students securing the Fayerweather, while in the second photo, they were joined by Hispanic students.
Over time, the situation gradually progressed. The Amherst College presidential administration changed their thoughts about diversity and inclusion and how they should respond to the opposing forces like the predominant, racist White student body. Currently, almost 275 students identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino which is a notable growth from only 5 students accepted in 1972. But the path was non-linear and full of barricades. Minority students like the
Hispanics and Latinos had to make their place through immense struggle and experimentation strengthened by ideal-driven leadership.
The minority students’ struggles and movements are actually resemblances to the different kinds of segregations that exist at the core of our societies. The way women are still discriminated and looked down on, are directly or indirectly the result of these racial supremacist attitudes. To put an end to these macroaggressions and build an ideal, inclusive society, we often need to initiate revolutionary movements which the Hispanic and Latino student community of Amherst College did and in that way, they made their place at Amherst College.
Life At Amherst College: Making Place at Amherst
Written by Anik Dey, Amherst Class of 2025
1) Saxton, Martha. Amherst in the World. Amherst College Press, 2020. 2) “Photographs of La Causa Occupation of Fayerweather, 1978 December 6.” Amherst College Digital Collections, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections, 6 Dec. 1978, https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:880585/asc:880626.