By Ashley Alvarez
As of the 2017-18 school year, the U.S. Department of Education recognized the University of California, Irvine as a Hispanic-serving institution. This means one quarter of undergraduate students identify as Latino. While the progress on behalf of the Hispanic community is a reigning accomplishment, it nevertheless comes with new hurdles. A large portion of Hispanic students, both freshmen and transfers, have reported experiencing intense culture shock upon their arrival at UCI.
Seniors Adrian De La Riva and Jesus Ortega experienced this firsthand upon arriving at UCI three years ago before the university was deemed a Latino-serving institution.
“My first year, I felt like I couldn’t connect with the people in my hall. I felt separated from them,” said Ortega.
It was Ortega’s feeling of alienation that led him to collaborate with his fellow Latino classmates. Together, they established what is now a popular and necessary organization: Hermanos Unidos (HU) de UCI.
“I had heard of Hermanos Unidos from a friend at Cal Poly Pomona, so I looked into it. I wanted to know if there was anything like that here at UCI, and there wasn’t. We started getting people together, and before we knew it, we became the founding fathers of HU at UCI,” said Ortega.
Hermanos Unidos is a Californian organization originally established at UC Berkeley. The organization is comprised of fourteen familias [families], with Irvine being the newest addition. Hermanos Unidos translates to Brothers United. The organization is founded on three major pillars: Academic Excellence, Community Service and Social Networking. HU aims at, but is not limited to, serving the Latino population at UCI. The organization strives to emulate a family and to provide a haven for Latino students all while simultaneously working to break down cultural stereotypes that have historically oppressed Latinos.
When Hermanos Unidos was first established at UCI, its major appeal was providing students an avenue to get involved while encouraging Latino university retention rate.
Current HU member and “Co-Chair” De La Riva recalls, “I had been involved in programs like AVID and baseball in high school, so I knew I had a voice and I knew I wanted to be involved, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t know of any organizations or opportunities offered to me on campus, so I went to an HU meeting after learning about it on Facebook, and it just took off from there.”
De La Riva explains that Hermanos Unidos brings something different to the table. The organization “centers around community and a family aspect.”
“When I was a freshman, there was only like a 13 percent Hispanic population, and now it’s 27 percent. That’s a huge jump. We’re here to help the incoming freshmen find their place, and not feel scared of such a different community,” said De La Riva.
Fourth year HU cabinet member Zamir Ramirez describes HU as an accepting place. “I stayed away from other organizations on campus because they were very political, very activist-oriented … sometimes people want a place where they can be with other people who have a shared similar struggle. They want to feel free to be who they are back home, here,” said Ramirez.
Being a hermano is more than just title; the hermandad (brotherhood) runs deep among these students. They stand by one another, they support each other’s endeavors, celebrate one another’s accomplishments and mourn each other’s misfortunes.
“We’re out here building a family,” said De La Riva.
“We’re not a frat; we don’t charge our members. There’s no rushing, no judging, no hazing and no process. Come find out what we can offer you, if you’re scared, or feel like you don’t know what you’re doing then that’s all the more reason to stop by. HU is here to help people find their way,” added Ramirez.
Hermanos Unidos reaches out not only to Latino students on campus but surrounding Latino communities as well.
“We recognize that we need to give back,” said Ramirez.
Hermanos believe in the empowerment of other Latinos. They participate in non-profit outreach programs in an effort to try and encourage children from impoverished areas to aim for a college career.
All three original members, Ramirez, Ortega and De La Riva, agree that HU was founded out of necessity by those who needed it in 2016 and all those who will utilize it in the years to come.
“I hadn’t seen that sense of community at UCI,” said De La Riva. “So I wanted to be one of the people to establish it, so that future hermanos find a home here.”
Gabriel Medrano is a freshmen at UCI, and he is also a committed hermano. Medrano joined HU earlier this year in the fall quarter.
“My roommate Aldo (a current member) and I met the hermanos at the involvement fair fall quarter. We were looking for a Latino organization to join. We knew the demographic at UCI wasn’t a Latino majority, and it was going to be hard to find people with the same background to socialize with,” said Medrano.
Medrano, like many new students, felt the effects of a lack of community.
Looking back Medrano says, “HU changed the trajectory of my college career. They were so welcoming, it seemed like their mission was to make us feel comfortable at Irvine. I found that community and social aspect I had been missing. HU gave me the resources and encouraged me to participate further on campus.”
As the volume of Latino student attendance grows, so does HU. Ortega and De La Riva agree that its number of committed members has tripled when compared to last year. “If you’re looking for that home-away-from-home feeling, it’s here at hermanos. We’re inclusive regardless of race or gender,” said Medrano.
After participating in HU these last two quarters, Medrano is sure he will continue to grow with the organization over the course of the next three years.
“Coming in as freshman, we have that hunger, that ambition. Where these guys [Ramirez, De La Riva, and Ortega] are finishing, we’re just getting started,” said Medrano. “We have motivation and innovation. We’ll take what worked and what didn’t work and advance the program. If we further developed HU, imagine how greatly it could influence the lives of students in years after us. You get out what you put in, and so far I’m working hard and I’ve gotten out a lot. If we can teach that to other people, they’ll realize that we look out for each other. At that point, the sky’s the limit.”
Medrano sees promise for the program and the future of Latino students.