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It is early in Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, and Luis Mata, a senior political science major from Guadalajara, Mexico, is reminiscing about the road that brought him to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the dream he sought to fulfill when he first arrived on campus as a transfer student in 2019.

Mata moved to the United States when he was five years old. His family settled in Farragut, Tennessee, where they ran a popular Mexican restaurant for more than a decade. Those early years, Mata would sit with his grandmother, who visited once a year from Mexico, and watch Spanish-language television in the family’s living room. He recalls vividly one recurring segment, Orgullo hispano (“Hispanic pride”), a series of 30-second profiles each celebrating a Latino somewhere in the US for making a difference in their community.

“My grandmother would always point to me and say, ‘Luis, one day that’s going to be you,’” Mata says. “Being that pride for my family and my community—that’s pretty much been my goal ever since.”

Mata is one of approximately 1,330 Latino students on campus. (Latino faculty and staff make up another 200 members of the Volunteer community.) They are a diverse group, representing countries from Mexico in the north to Argentina in the south. But while the roads that brought them to Rocky Top may be distinct, there is also connection—a commitment to supporting one another, overcoming together, and proudly staking a claim for what it means to be a Volunteer in their skin.

An extension of family

The Latin American Student Organization (LASO) is one of several groups on campus that serves and supports Latino students. It organizes weekly meetings and has co-organized events such as UndocuAlly to encourage conversations about immigration. The group also hosts social events, such as Taco and Bachata nights with the campus chapter of Lambda Theta Alpha, the country’s first Latina sorority. A Latino fraternity, Lambda Theta Phi, is also active on campus.

“We want young Latin American students to know you can come to UT, get a great education, and be among your community too,” says Andrea Faggioli, LASO president. “It’s hard to be proud of where you’re from if you never see people who look like you. LASO is loud and proud about who we are.”

Students prepare welcome kits
Students in the Latin American Student Organization (LASO) prepare welcome kits for immigrants during spring 2019.

Faggioli, a senior psychology major and clarinet player in the Pride of the Southland Band, is from El Salvador. Her family settled in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, after immigrating to the US. Her sister Alicia attended UT first, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 2016. She served with LASO during her time as a student, and Faggioli was eager to get involved as soon as she arrived.

“LASO is a little extension of my family here at UT,” she says.

The Office of Multicultural Student Life (MSL) staff advises LASO and nine other student groups. Every year, MSL hosts speakers and organizes events as part of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month. It also hosts an annual Diversity Dialogue Symposium on campus, scheduled this year for September 29–October 2.

“The Latinx community here may be small, but it is strong and significant,” says Daniel Dominguez, a coordinator for MSL who moved to Knoxville this spring after two years at Florida State University. “We want student organizations to feel like they aren’t the only ones putting in the work to establish a voice and visibility on campus. MSL is here supporting and celebrating them.”

That sentiment is what brought Maria Martinez back to UT, where she graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in modern foreign languages and literatures and a concentration in Hispanic studies. She went on to earn a master’s degree in higher education from Florida State University and work for a year as assistant director of the Intercultural Center at Wake Forest University before becoming a coordinator with UT’s Jones Center for Leadership and Service.

Students at football game
Martinez (left), while a student, at Neyland Stadium with a friend for a football game.

“UT empowered me to feel like a leader and find value and power in my identities as a Latina and an immigrant,” says Martinez, who attended middle and high school in Greeneville, Tennessee, where her family settled after moving from Bogotá, Colombia.

The opportunities to be involved as a student were critical for Martinez. As an undergraduate, she was student orientation coordinator and interned with the Jones Center. Once, while leading an orientation session, she spoke to new students about discovering their identities while in college and began to talk about her own story.

“That was the first time I got to really unpack why being Latina is so important to me,” Martinez recalls.

A pre-med student at the time, she went back to her dorm, Googled “Colombia” and “UTK,” and found the bio page for Luis Cano, a professor in the Spanish program who is currently interim head of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures. She soon switched majors.

Through a networking opportunity offered by MSL, Martinez was paired with a mentor from UT’s Latino Alumni Council. That woman, Patricia Robledo, had resettled in East Tennessee from Colombia too. She attended UT for three years in the early 1980s, studying toward degrees in biology and medical technology. An entrepreneur, she was the City of Knoxville’s business liaison under former mayor Madeline Rogero and continues in the same role for Mayor Indya Kincannon.

“Patricia was this example of resilience and perseverance for me,” Martinez says. “To see another Colombiana leading, that’s very important. You have a reference now. I take that very seriously, and that’s why I try to make myself as available and visible as possible for students.”

To be a Latino at UT is to be constantly seeking and colliding with connection—recognizing a Hispanic surname in a class, overhearing a conversation in Spanish on Johnson-Ward Pedestrian Walkway, or Googling a combination of words that might lead you to someone on campus with a face and a story like yours.

Pride and sacrifice

That is where the story returns to Mata, whose road to UT would’ve been impossible if it not for the support of the community and his own spirit of sacrifice, which today define him.

Although he was accepted into UT out of high school, as a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he would have had to pay out-of-state tuition and did not qualify for federal aid. Mata considered the burden on his mother and two siblings and decided, instead, to attend community college, paying for one course a semester. He watched friends leave for Rocky Top while he waited for a separate immigration process which could give him legal permanent resident status to resolve so he could join them.

That year, Mata was at Market Square with his family for the HoLa Festival, an annual celebration of Hispanic cultures in downtown Knoxville. He saw a table for LASO and approached Faggioli to ask how he could get involved the following semester, hoping he’d be on Rocky Top by then.

Mata also contacted Robledo. She remembered him as a little boy in his family’s Farragut restaurant; her kids, though a few years older, had attended the same schools. She connected Mata with an immigration attorney, who offered him a job. He got the news in a text message as he was walking out of the US Consulate in Mexico. After a 15-year-wait, his residency interview was complete and his paperwork approved. Mata was now a legal permanent resident.

With access to in-state tuition and federal financial aid, Mata transferred to UT. The time had come to write his Volunteer story.

Three people in front of background
Martinez (left) and Mata (right) during a VOLbreaks trip in December 2019.

In December of his first semester, Mata traveled to Austin, Texas, on a VOLbreaks trip organized by the Jones Center. The group of a dozen students spent a week volunteering with community organizations serving refugees and immigrants through the trials of a new life in the US. It all seemed so familiar. That first night, while walking to the cot on the gym floor of the church where the group slept, Mata heard Martinez, who led the students on the trip, call his name.

“We got to talking about all the parallels—the journeys that brought us to UT,” says Martinez.

A few days in, as the group discussed what it means to be an active citizen, she asked Mata what he was going to do when he got back to Knoxville. He and another student on the trip, Taylor Dempsey, said they planned to launch an organization to serve as a bridge between the university and Knoxville’s migrant community. They would advocate for student immigrants and educate campus about immigration issues. Martinez offered to serve as the group’s advisor.

In the first weeks of 2020, Students for Migrant Justice was born. This past spring, the organization received one of four new student organization awards from UT’s Center for Student Engagement.

Mata’s story has come full circle—an immigrant now using his platform, the privilege he’s been afforded, to serve others.

A family of four
Mata (top) with his mother and younger siblings.

“Luis is the epitome of the American success story,” says Claudia Caballero, president and CEO of Centro Hispano de East Tennessee, where Mata and dozens of other UT students volunteer every semester.

Mata, who is also employed as a legal assistant with the Catholic Charities of East Tennessee’s Office of Immigrant Services, will continue advocating beside marginalized communities. After graduation next spring, he plans to attend law school, focusing on immigration law. It’s a dream that would have been perhaps unimaginable to a younger version of himself. But his grandmother knew it all along.

“It’s important to be proud of where you come from and reflect on the sacrifices that provided the opportunity to be where you are,” Mata says. “That is what Hispanic Heritage Month is about for me—to make the world I’m privileged to experience more accessible to those who haven’t had my opportunities.”

CONTACT

Brian Canever (865-974-0937, bcanever@utk.edu)