History of Latinos at Notre Dame

The history of Latino students at Notre Dame goes back to 1864, when Alexandro Perea of New Mexico became the first Spanish-surnamed student to enroll at the University. By the 1870s several more Hispanics from Colorado and New Mexico had appeared on the rolls. These enrollments reflect recruitment efforts by the Congregation of the Holy Cross that intensified in the late 1800s, when Father John Zahm started canvassing the southwestern United States and Mexico to recruit Latino students to the University’s collegiate and pre-collegiate programs. Until 1929 the “Minims” program, housed in St. Edward’s Hall, provided scores of young boys, including Latinos, with an elementary-level boarding school education at Notre Dame.

In 1928 Latin American students founded La Raza Club. It began simply “to provide an outlet for the longing” for home, but its mission quickly evolved and its activities expanded. By 1936 La Raza was hosting political discussions on Latin America and Spain and organizing celebrations to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe. The club even succeeded in introducing soccer to Notre Dame.

Originally founded for Latin Americans, La Raza started admitting U.S.-born Latinos after World War II. In 1954 A. Samuel Adelo of Pecos, New Mexico, became the club’s first U.S. Latino president. Adelo was among the many veterans who returned to Notre Dame after the war to complete their education. There the Latinos among them found a renewed interest in the Americas and the Spanish language. Famed athletic director Moose Krause invited Adelo to travel with the football team as a Spanish tutor on long train rides, and several Holy Cross priests also took Spanish lessons from young “professor” Adelo.

During the 1960s and 1970s Latinos at Notre Dame felt the influence of the Chicano student movement and grassroots community organizations that were emerging across the country. Although the University had only a handful of Chicano students and one faculty member in 1970, a Chicano Civil Rights movement started on campus.  Among the students was Graciela Gil Olivarez, who, in 1970, was the first woman and the first Latina to graduate from Notre Dame Law School. Olivarez continued to blaze trails in her roles as a professor of law, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity in Arizona, chair of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the director of the federal Community Services Administration. During his distinguished career at Notre Dame, (1959-1985), Dr. Julian Samora’s Latino studies lecture series brought Latino scholars to campus each semester and, under Samora’s tutelage, Notre Dame produced a host of scholars in Latino studies.

Samora’s 1985 retirement led to the demise of his groundbreaking work to establish the Mexican American Graduate Studies program. Recruitment of Latinos continued, however, and these students gradually built their own network of groups and programs to acknowledge and enhance the Latino experience at Notre Dame. Their efforts as students and later as alumni helped pave the way for the establishment of the Institute for Latino Studies in 1999 under founding director Dr. Gilberto Cárdenas, a Samora student who completed his doctorate in sociology at Notre Dame. Professor José Limón replaced Cárdenas as director in 2012 and is the current director of the Institute.