Junot Diaz to kick off Latino Heritage month

Junot Diaz, an award-winning author, will help kick off this year’s Latino Heritage Celebration on campus Sept. 16 in the Marvin Betts Theatre.

Eric Gutierrez, the Multicultural Student Services Center’s Latino community development coordinator, said Diaz was chosen as the keynote speaker because he is well-known among a broad range of students and faculty.

“We felt that his experiences and his writing style would attract an audience that would reflect the diversity of GW,” Gutierrez said.

He added that the MSSC partnered with the Writing in the Disciplines faculty to “identify a writer that would be exciting, and relevant to our students.”

Gutierrez said Diaz’s books, “Drown” and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” depict the celebration’s theme of Movimientos, because they focus on the progress of people and struggles to overcome obstacles. Movimientos is Spanish for movements.

Part of Diaz’s event will include a reading and a talk about his experiences as a Latino activist, Gutierrez said.

“He will also address the questions of politics, progress and leadership since he’s been a member of a number of Latino community organizations, having been an activist himself,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez said Latino Heritage Month used to be an informal celebration by Latinos for Progress, now known as the Organization of Latino American Students, first established in 1996. It wasn’t until 2000 that the University officially recognized the month, and since then, the MSSC has provided funding and helped organize the official calendar of events.

Planning for the celebration begins a year in advance, Gutierrez said, with a committee to identify speakers and work on community building.

Gutierrez said GW’s Latino undergraduate population has grown from less than 5 percent of all students in 2000 to 7 percent. This year, 8 percent of the freshman class alone identifies as Latino, he said. From 2000 to this year, the number of Latino student organizations has grown from one to seven groups.

“[The MSSC works] with the organizations to help strengthen the Latino community by encouraging program coordination, and collaboration throughout the entire academic year,” he said.

The University also has relationships with local organizations like the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the National Council of La Raza and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation among others, he said.

While Gutierrez acknowledged that outreach to non-Latino students has been difficult in the past, he said it has improved over the years through the work of the MSSC.

“Our student retention work has helped us to become integrally involved with each of the multicultural communities,” he said.

The Movimientos celebration, coordinated by the MSSC, runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 and will feature various speakers and events.

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