El Congreso is calling for the expansion and improvements of El Centro de UC Santa Barbara, citing concerns in the condition, accessibility and general usage of the building. These demands were initially made in April and have been pushed forth since.
El Centro is a communal building located on campus in Building 406 by the UCSB Library and provides physical space for multiple multicultural, Chicanx/Latinx and political organizations. The center was established in 1969 as an official meeting space for the Latinx and Chicanx campus community, according to Erik Magana, member of El Congreso and board director of Mesa Directiva, a student-run governing board that oversees use of the center. Previously, the building itself existed as an informal meeting space, as well as a place for student activism.
“For El Centro, specifically, we just have so much rich history and so much culture and so many physical artifacts that could be displayed,” El Congreso member and fourth-year political science major Isa Medrano said. “We’ve talked about display cases, and just beautiful art displays. We have so many newspapers, and so many things that are so symbolic of our history and all the work we’ve done on campus.”
Assistant Vice Chancellor from the Student Academic Support Services Division of Student Affairs Lupe Navarro-Garcia said administrators and students worked to found El Centro in 1969 in response to “student demands for accountability from the university.”
“It was envisioned as a community center that provided holistic support for students, celebrated students’ identities … and provided students with academic and student service mentors who understand their cultural and first-generation university needs,” Navarro-Garcia said.
“El Centro was born from activism, and it has maintained this legacy throughout its history.”
El Centro is filled with physical reminders of this activism, with artifacts from the past of El Congreso and other Hispanic-serving organizations displayed on the interior walls of the building and stored throughout its rooms.
El Congreso’s activism dates back to the hunger strikes held in 1989 and 1994 to demand for the university to recognize the Chicanx/Latinx population on campus. As a result of these strikes, the Chicana/o studies department was expanded upon and more Chicanx/Latinx students were recruited to attend the university, along with a growth in support for students of low-income and/or marginalized backgrounds.
“Historically, we are very connected to space physically,” Medrano said. “We have always run out of El Centro, it has always been a physical home base for El Congreso.”
El Congreso is a student-led cultural, social and activist organization at UCSB that provides a safe space of inclusivity for students of marginalized backgrounds. The organization published a list of demands back in April to call for UCSB to take greater action toward Hispanic students as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), the expansion of El Centro and an end to the construction of Munger Hall.
Among El Congreso’s demands for UCSB, the expansion of El Centro is one held close to heart, according to Medrano. El Centro has historically served as a physical safe space for Hispanic students to mingle, study, congregate and exist in tandem with the rest of the Latinx community at UCSB.
“El Centro is really the physical manifestation of where Hispanic students on campus have a physical place to call home,” Medrano said. “And I think that post COVID, especially, it was something that everybody really wanted to be available to as many people as possible.”
In the demands, El Congreso called for the construction of more study spaces and community rooms and requested a review of the center’s architectural plans to identify how areas such as the grass field surrounding the building could be utilized for development. Medrano said UCSB’s HSI designation, a title the university has held since 2015, comes with an obligation to ensure that sufficient physical space exists for Hispanic students on campus.
“Regardless, we think that there needs to be enough space to support the entirety of the Hispanic student population, especially if you’re going to be an HSI,” Medrano said.
Medrano emphasized that the additional spaces would also be used to display and preserve the artifacts and relics of the past that various organizations like El Congreso have kept in the building.
“We don’t have the space to display it all, we don’t have the space to make room for it all, and that’s something that we would really like to do,” she continued. “It’s become a physical home for our orgs now, but also whatever legacy we leave behind.”
Magana and Medrano also voiced major student concern over the lack of Americans with Disabilities Act compliance at El Centro, due to the lack of elevator access to the second floor of the two-story building. This completely cuts off access to the second floor — which holds large study rooms for students and meeting spaces for organizations — for campus community members with mobility issues and those who need wheelchair access. This demand — which has been voiced by El Congreso to the university since its initial set of demands — is still not met nor has it experienced significant progress in its completion.
“If you are physically disabled in any way, it is quite literally impossible … to access the second floor,” Medrano said. “That’s been a really important [demand] for us because that also neglects a part of the Hispanic student population.”
“There are disabled Latino students on campus who have just as much right to the building as anyone else does,” she continued. “If they cannot access the entirety of the building, how are you going to feel safe and welcome here?”
Magana added that the building itself was not made with intentions of disability access. Though there was a renovation in 2017-18 on the ramp that goes into the entrance of the building, installing an elevator in the building is still a distant goal for El Centro and El Congreso.
“There is an entire department housed on the second floor, and they have constant concerns about always having to carry stuff up the stairs, the stairs themselves are not the most stable set either,” he said. “There’s always been the question of ‘What if you need to bring in someone who is not able to go up those stairs for any reason?’”
Medrano added that as one of the few buildings on campus without video camera surveillance, there is a lack of pressure of “being watched,” which cultivates a true safe space for El Congreso to meet without fear of surveillance.
“It’s also historically always been a place where El Congreso can gather without fear of surveillance by the university,” she said. “You’ll notice it’s one of the only buildings on campus without cameras, surveillance or recording devices — it is a genuinely safe and trusted space.”
Medrano said — and Magana concurred — that El Centro has primarily been maintained by Mesa Directiva along with individual staff and faculty. Mesa Directiva serves as a liaison between El Centro, Hispanic-serving student groups like El Congreso, the Educational Opportunity Program and the Early Academic Outreach Program, among others. They also partner with external entities like CalFresh and Undocumented Student Services to ensure that the community’s concerns are being heard.
“We have EOP mentors, we have EOP advisors, who are doing multiple jobs and getting paid for one,” Medrano said. “It’s a beautiful space, but it has really been invested in mostly by students, not necessarily by administration.”
Although Medrano believes that El Centro ultimately belongs to students, thus students should also be given the decision-making power for the building, she emphasized that these students do not often have the funds, resources or the time to bring all of their plans and visions to fruition without UCSB’s support. Thus, Medrano said the primary demand for the university in regards to El Centro is providing that financial support.
“We prefer that students have the final say, but we don’t necessarily have the funds or the resources of the time to do all of it 100% on our own,” she said. “I think that the primary thing that the university could do to support is money, but also investing in the projects that we propose.”
Magana advocated for the application of HSI grant funding toward the renovation of El Centro, saying that the center currently receives no university funding to benefit the building’s expansion.
“HSI funds are not in any way, shape or form being used toward the building,” Magana said. “There has been no initiative that focuses on bringing in additional resources for this building, additional funding for the expansion of this building in any way, shape or form.”
Medrano said that UCSB’s proclaimed love for El Centro in press but neglect for the maintenance and improvement for the building is “the pinnacle of performative activism,” citing two occurrences in the past to exemplify.
In 2017, UCSB declared evacuation of students from El Centro’s Arnulfo Casillas’ activity room in response to dry rot, insect damage and general seismic risk, as well as advised the demolition of the building in 45 days time unless significant improvements were made. This announcement sparked outrage in the student body — including El Congreso — over the university’s neglect of the building, despite students voicing concerns over the maintenance of El Centro.
“We had students themselves holding emergency meetings and advocating for themselves to save the building in 2017 when [administration] was going to just tear it down,” Medrano said.
“That was their best solution — to tear it down — and there was no thought to the consequences,” she continued. “There was no thought to how that might affect Latinx students, there’s no thought to the historical significance [of the building]. Students are the ones who had to do the work, so it’s just so demonstrative of this performative activism.”
Magana said no significant improvements have been made to the building since 2017. Recently, the sliding entrance door to the building broke and was not fixed for an extended period despite complaints from students. Magana claimed that UCSB fixed the door right before alumni weekend.
“Only when the alumni network highlighted that they’re going to have a luncheon at the building, they escalated the level of the work order,” Magana said. “It shouldn’t have taken that to realize that this sliding door is literally blocking the entrance to the building.”
Magana emphasized that the door’s longtime neglect and sudden fix was indicative of where the university’s priorities align in their passion — or lack thereof — to maintain the building.
“The urgency could not have been more clear when we put [the work order] in, and only when we’re gonna have alumni coming … it became an issue,” he said.
The only demand from El Congreso in terms of accessibility to the building that has been met by the university is the installation of a door opener, which was funded through Student Affairs, along with the ramp to the entrance. Regardless, Magana said there is still a lack of elevator access to the second floor and a neglect of general maintenance and safety of the building for students to confidently utilize the space.
“It can happen at any time where they hire someone who needs ADA access,” Magana said. “That’s a study space [upstairs] that can fit 20 to 30 people … and if you’re studying up there, there’s absolutely no way to get up there on a wheelchair, and you’d be struggling to get up there on crutches because those are some pretty steep stairs.”
“The whole point is we want the entire building to be open and accessible and the resources to be available, and if the second floor is off limits, there’s a lot of untapped potential for folks that can’t get up there,” he continued.
Speaking to El Congreso, Medrano said that the organization almost shut down during COVID-19 from a lack of members and lack of extra effort to revitalize the organization, and if a shutdown occurred, all that would be left of El Congreso would have been the artifacts stored in boxes in El Centro. Thus, she emphasized the importance of preserving this history of the organizations that have historically run out of El Centro and recognizing the advocacy they have done on behalf of marginalized students on campus.
“If they had not put in the work, and if people had not joined and been retained, we could have lost our org, and then all we would have had left were those physical things that would just be shoved in boxes somewhere and nobody would know,” Medrano said. “That’s also something we discussed — having the space to honor not just ourselves, but every org that runs out of here.”
Above all, Medrano emphasized that the demand for the expansion of El Centro is one El Congreso will never give up, no matter the response from the university.
“If there’s one thing we’re not going to give up easy on, it’s a demand to make more space for us physically,” Medrano said. “Members have literally put their lives on the line for us … and this is definitely something that we are willing to go to whatever means we deem necessary to make sure that we are leaving behind a space that is better and bigger and more inclusive than it has been in the past, and El Centro is the physical manifestation of that.”
Magana said that El Centro is, more than anything, a community space for students who are marginalized on campus and provides a sense of belonging and home for these individuals to exist in peace and security.
“There’s just a community there that walks through the building,” Magana said. “People will drop off food for people to eat in the fridge, people will study together in groups in the building — a lot of folks, a lot of groups, have meetings there, so there’s just a sense of safety and security there.”
“At the end of the day, El Centro is that space for a lot of people,” he continued. “It’s a separate building away from admin, away from the library, away from the classrooms.”
The history of student activism and advocacy is preserved on the walls of El Centro, and Magana demands that such a historically and culturally significant building not be neglected by a university of HSI status that has a mission to support the Hispanic student population.
“There is history enriched in this building — you feel it as soon as you walk in,” Magana said. “The space exists, and many people trust it and feel safe in it, and that’s what’s important. That’s what makes El Congreso’s demands valid.”
“It’s all those things. It’s safety, it’s security, it’s history, it’s activism, trust, well-being. It’s this for a lot of people, and I definitely share that.”
The university did not respond to all requests for comment.
A version of this article appeared on p. __ of the Oct. 27, 2022 print edition of the Daily Nexus.