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UNIDOS is a Hispanic/Latinx group at Rhode Island College that welcomes people of all races, cultures and ethnicities.

In the most recent census, the questions about race and ethnicity were approached differently as they relate to Latinos. The question about race did not include Latino or Hispanic as a category – rather a separate question asked if the respondent was of "Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" origin, regardless of what race(s) they chose. "But that does not always align very well with how Latinos see their own identities," notes Mikaila Arthur, a sociology professor at Rhode Island College.

"Race is as basic as what you can see. So because of my skin color I am white even though I am of Hispanic ethnicity," says Heidi Salazar Martinez, a current social work student at RIC, who identifies as Puerto Rican and Latinx. "For me, culture is the art, the food, what you can relate to. Race isn't that important; culture is what makes you who you are." 

Daniel Clarkin, co-president of UNIDOS, a Hispanic group at Rhode Island College, believes that when it comes to race and ethnicity, "we confuse these terms a lot." He adds, "For example if you are Latino, people believe you have to look a certain way. People's first assumption when they hear the word 'Latino' is definitely not a darker person or super-light blond hair and blue eyes, but olive skin tone and dark hair." 

Lilly Ngolvorarath, a student of world language education with a concentration in Spanish and minor in Latin American studies at RIC, explains that "when you have to fill out a survey and the races are listed – white, black, Asian and maybe Native American – there's always a second question that asks about Hispanic origin. That forces some people to say, 'I don't identify as white. I am from Colombia or Bolivia. I don't fit into any of these categories. So, what do I call myself?'" She adds, "It's important for people who are Latino to say the country that they are from because that's probably the most important identifying factor for them." 

"It's important how I identify and feel about myself, but with the political climate that we are in right now, and how identity-politics are kind of a huge thing, how I identify is cultural," says Clarkin, who identifies as Puerto Rican or Latino.

When ethnicity is understood as the way that a person identifies, there could be a vast number of ethnicities in a single person, depending on who they are and where they were raised. "There are, for example, people who are black, but who can pass as white and choose to identify themselves as black, even though they could have chosen to live a life where nobody would ever know what their ancestry might have been," explains Arthur. "But generally it's still based on how people see it."

Ngolvorarath was born in the United States, but identifies as half Laotian and half Chinese. "Those experiences are very, very different," she notes. "I've never really felt like I belong in one place because there is the Lao-American experience and then the experience of growing up in Laos. I think I am inbetween both." 

She feels that more exposure to other cultures would help people appreciate their differences better. "A lot of people don't understand the differences that exist in the Asian culture," she says. "Think about it as if you were Mexican and I called you Dominican. They are two different cultures. In Asian countries we don't even speak the same language. I think it's ignorance, although I don't think it's coming from a place of malice." 

When talking about identity, UNIDOS makes a special effort to be accommodating. The group not only welcomes Spanish speakers, but anyone who wants to learn or practice the language. Clarkin, Ngolvorarath and Salazar are all members of this group and they clarify that they work hard to make room for everyone's individual identity. "We have a shared identity in being RIC students and on top of that most of us are from Providence, so we have that shared experience, too," says Ngolvorarath.

"It's really important to give everyone time to distinguish themselves from the rest of the group," explains Clarkin. "For example, we have a lot of Christian members. They share their daily lives, some experiences at church, something that means a lot to them. We have a lot of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Central Americans, and a lot of the ways they share their identities are through music and food."

UNIDOS tries to have events that cater to expanding their members' ideas and experiences with their identities, which starts just with having conversations about their nationalities, gender roles, sexual identities, religion and other things.

"Where you're from doesn't really matter," says Salazar. "We all have the connection of being Hispanic and living here in North America. UNIDOS does a good job of putting everyone together and just trying to make sure that everyone is included."

Arthur strongly believes that "where we grow up shapes our identity." She adds, "Where we come from and the experiences that we have when we're growing up really shape the way that we're going to see and understand the diversity that we experience as adults and gives us an extremely different point of reference."

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion recently launched an event series called ACTive Listening that echoes these discussions. On March 25, it hosted a conversation on "Cultural and Linguistic Diversity," touching upon issues of race and identity. Among the panelists were Erin Papa, assistant professor of world languages; Eliani Basile Benaion, chair of the Modern Languages Department; David Ramirez, assistant professor of modern languages; Laura Faria-Tancinco, faculty and coordinator of the ESL Intensive Program and Project ExCel; Ruth Feliz-Lima, RIC alumna; and Laura Abreu, a current RIC student. Karina Mascorro, adjunct faculty and coordinator for the Office for International, Immigrant, Undocumented, DACAmented and Refugee Students, served as panel facilitator.

"The mission of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is to ensure equitable practices, an inclusive culture and an affirming environment for our diverse student body," says Mascorro. "These are all deliberate efforts designed to combat racism and social inequalities within our campus."