Living La Vida Greek: Latinos Redefine Centuries Old College Tradition

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Like many students, Diana Medina wanted to enhance her college experience by joining a sorority but felt something was missing from the traditional Greek life.

Culture.

Medina decided to join the Latina-themed Sigma Lambda Gamma, and become part of a growing number of students who have joined fraternities and sororities with an emphasis on ethnic culture.

Here at CSUN, there are many multicultural groups represented in Greek life, including Armenian, Asian, Black and Latino.

Growing Pains

Sigma Lambda Gamma and other Latino fraternities and sororities have carved out a niche of their own on campus. In some but not all cases, they have attempted to forge a fraternal bond with the traditional Greeks – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – while avoiding the ostracism of non-Greek members of the Latino community.

“Sometimes I think it’s really hard, said Medina, a senior political science major and Sigma Lambda Gamma president. “A lot of other people don’t agree with Latina sororities. We’re a different culture. We’re not traditional. (We’re) Latino Greeks (and we’re) trying to give a positive view of Greek life. (It’s) very hard to bridge the gap, and (yet) we’re all in the same boat.”

Medina said there is a void between traditional and multicultural sororities on campus.

“The white Greeks are not informed yet,” Medina said. “It will be a matter of time for some progress (to occur) and for people to see there is a Greek life for everybody.”

Medina said misinformation about Greek life exists in the Latino community as well.

“It’s hard to get them to have a positive view (of Latino Greek life). They don’t really see the brotherhood and sisterhood camaraderie.”

Sigma Lambda Gamma is part of the United Sorority and Fraternity Council, a council of fraternities and sororities comprised of unofficial ethnic Greeks.

“We fundraise and get money from (Associated Students),” Medina said. “Membership dues are lower than at a traditional sorority. We have a one-time application fee and a lot of our fundraising goes to charity.”

Founded at Iowa State University in 1990, Sigma Lambda Gamma has 13 active members on the CSUN campus. Medina said she feels she is in a tight-knit sorority that is open to everyone.

“People join us for the sake of the size,” Medina said. “We accept you the way you are. We have a white member and a Black member. We are not just for Latinas.”

She said the fact that her sorority has so few members is an advantage.

“The traditional sororities are not on the same level,” Medina said. “We have a connection and are more closely tied together because we are a smaller organization.”

The tight-family bond that many Latinas have extends into sorority life, Medina said. Whereas some sorority members might be trying to get away from their parents, Latina sorority members actually invite them in.

Families were introduced to Sigma Lambda Gamma so that mothers and fathers would be aware of what their daughters did in the group, Medina said.

“Parents are involved, too,” Medina said. “We have a lot of activities and they want to volunteer by making food and holding events at their homes.”

For Medina and her sorority sisters, this kind of cultural detail means everything.

“(The sorority) was created to put a piece of our own culture into Greek life. My sorority was created because there was not enough emphasis on diversity, (but) there’s still a gap.”

Medina said the recruiting technique of her sorority differs from the traditional councils. Sigma Lambda Gamma pledge classes are smaller and the sorority is not required to admit a certain number of new members.

Medina said many traditional sororities are required to accept a minimum number of recruits as mandated by the Panhellenic Council.

Another aspect of Latino Greek life that Medina appreciates is that many former members still make themselves available to current members.

“A lot of our founding mothers and fathers are still around,” Medina said. “They’re still active. It’s really awesome to know our history (through them).”

Every year retreats are organized for Greeks on campus. At the retreats, students attend workshops and discuss how fraternities and sororities can better facilitate communication between the groups.

Medina said in years past, Latino Greeks were not included in the yearly Greek-week events on campus, but now they are.

“We need to get involved,” Medina said. “We try to include ourselves. It will take small steps to get united with (the) traditional Greeks.”

“The Latino fraternities (and sororities) surfaced recently and (we) don’t feel a sense of competition (with the traditional Greeks),” Medina said. “We want to promote ourselves as an alternate choice of Greek life. We want to be important on this campus, so there’s room for everybody.”

Greek Life Advisor Jamison Keller said he thinks “it’s awesome” so many multiethnic-Greek organizations have surfaced in recent years, and he encourages interaction among all Greeks.

“So that they work collaboratively to have a community, rather than a system,” Keller said.

Helping Others

Senior liberal studies major Susana Lopez is the public relations chair of Lambda Theta Nu, a sorority founded at CSU, Chico in 1986 and established at CSUN in 1995.

Like Sigma Lambda Gamma, it is part of the USFC.

Lopez credits Keller with trying to bridge the gap between the ethnic Greek fraternities and sororities and their mainstream counterparts.

“Jamison tries to get everyone involved,” Lopez said. “There are the Greek retreats where all the councils get together in workshops and discuss how to improve interactions with councils. A lot of people didn’t know about us there.”

Lopez said she joined Lambda Theta Nu because it is Latina-based and big on community service.

“You don’t have to be a Latina to join,” Lopez said. “You just have to be geared toward Latina issues.”

Lopez said most of the proceeds from their fundraising are used to support community services they provide.

Lambda Theta Nu sponsors a Latina Youth Leadership Conference, a workshop for middle-school girls to help them prepare for a higher education, including how to apply for financial aid.

At the end of the year, the sorority awards a scholarship to a female-high-school graduate involved in the Latina community. The graduate must be going on to a two- or four-year college.

Although they educate young Latinas to effectively secure funds for educational purposes, Lambda Theta Nu did not know they were missing out on potential funds for campus events.

“We weren’t aware we could get money from A.S. until last year,” Lopez said. “We mostly fundraise because we’re really small.”

Lopez said she doesn’t feel any pressure to fit into any sorority stereotypes people may have. She chooses to focus on the fact that her sorority, like many fraternities and sororities, has a sound philanthropic purpose.

“The reason Lambda Theta Nu was founded was to help Latinas pursue a higher education.”

Lopez said her sorority has attempted to bridge the gap between traditional and multicultural sororities.

“We try to contact other organizations,” Lopez said. “Traditional sororities and fraternities have contacted us about events. A traditional fraternity even came to a meeting and introduced themselves.”

Some of the stereotypes that Lambda Theta Nu and other multicultural groups work against come from within.

The sisters of Lambda Theta Nu do a stepping routine with machetes, traditionally the domain of Latino males, but the sisters do not let that stop them.

“A lot of people find it strange that we step with machetes,” Lopez said. “We’re women, and that doesn’t mean we can’t step with machetes.”

Support Group

Ramon Galan, president of the year-old Latino-based fraternity
, Nu Alpha Kappa, said he wanted to make his college years meaningful by joining a fraternity.

“I wanted to enhance my college experience,” said the senior political science major.

“NAK was the only fraternity I found that gave real role models. I’m a first generation college student, so a support group (like the fraternity) definitely helps.”

Galan did not think it would be that difficult to be a Latino in a traditional fraternity with predominately white members, but said it would not be without its challenges.

“(By) going into a white fraternity, you’re going into a new culture and that’s harder to adapt to,” Galan said.

A.S. has given Nu Alpha Kappa money for two events so far, but the fraternity gets most of its money from fundraising. Galan said his fraternity places an emphasis on its members having their eyes open and getting good grades.

“We’re a support group, a family,” Galan said. “In our fraternity, we emphasize knowing your culture and roots. (We’re) easier to talk to and relate to.”

He discussed future goals for the fraternity.

“We want to expand,” Galan said. “We’re a tight-knit group, and my goal is to incorporate more people in the fraternity. Having people rely on you and trusting you makes everything easier.”

Galan said he thinks the exchanges between the multicultural and the traditional Greeks could be more substantial.

“There is a misunderstanding between councils,” Galan said. “We don’t interact.”

Nu Alpha Kappa is currently arranging to become part of the USFC. Galan noted some differences between the USFC and the IFC.

“The USFC is not organized and the council is in limbo,” Galan said. “There is no money in the council (so) we have to start from scratch. We (NAK) feel we can help the council. The IFC is very organized. We need more interaction.

“Every Latino fraternity needs to unite. If we work together, (we) will have a better image on and off campus.”

Dialogue Needed

Junior political science major Noe Lemus is president of Gamma Zeta Alpha, which is also part of the USFC.

Lemus said being part of a Latino fraternity has offered him the chance to discover more about his own sense of self. He does not think that would have been possible in a traditional fraternity.

“We’re open to anyone interested in Latino culture,” Lemus said. “I only knew a few things about my heritage and because of the fraternity, I’ve learned so much about Latino culture.”

Gamma Zeta Alpha was founded in 1987 at CSU, Chico and established at CSUN in 1993.

Noe joined the fraternity two years ago because most of his friends were leaving to the military, going to other schools and taking jobs elsewhere.

Gamma Zeta Alpha has an academics chair that finds scholarships for the brothers. The fraternity maintains a book-lending program and supports itself financially solely through fundraising, most of which is done at fraternity parties.

“I’m not gonna lie, we party,” Lemus said. “But we work before we party.”

Lemus said that even off campus he can rely on his brothers in all chapters, but he does not feel that same sustained brotherhood with traditional fraternities.

“During events with the white fraternities, we’re all brothers, but only during that time,” Lemus said. “With the Latinos, we have each other’s backs. We are there for each other.

“As Latinos, I feel we’re more united than other people. We’re family oriented as members, and I don’t think other fraternities are like that.”

Lemus said the lack of dialogue between Latino and predominately white traditional fraternities is something both groups have contributed to.

“Both sides are to blame for there not being a connection,” Lemus said. “No one’s (taken) that first step to meet (with) each other.”

Sigma Lambda Gamma’s Diana Medina said it is really about respecting the differences that exists among the various fraternities and sororities.

“When we came to CSUN, we weren’t grouped with traditional fraternities and sororities,” Medina said. “We made our own multicultural council. We have a different set of goals and criteria.”

“We’re not better. We’re not worse. We’re just different.”

Cynthia Ramos can be reached at cmr70871@csun.edu.