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El Centro Chicano makes a move

north hagerby Eddie North-Hager
A mural of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez was recreated for the new El Centro Chicano offices in the Student Union. (USC Photo/Eddie North-Hager)
Photo: A mural of civil rights leader Cesar Chavez was recreated for the new El Centro Chicano offices in the Student Union. (USC Photo/Eddie North-Hager)

Cesar Chavez still looms large over El Centro Chicano and USC.

The late civil rights leader is the subject of a mural lovingly recreated in the new offices of El Centro Chicano on the fourth floor of the Student Union.

The Division of Student Affairs department, whose mission is to provide personal, social and academic support to students and educate Trojans about Latino issues, celebrated its move this month with a ribbon-cutting and an unveiling of the mural featuring a performance by Latin Grammy-nominated and USC Thornton School of Music product Trio Ellas. USC Provost Elizabeth Garrett and former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry ’77, MPA ’81 attended the grand opening.

William “Billy” Vela, the department’s director, thought it was important to show an appreciation of the past and a nod to the future. Vela, who knew the mural could play a key role as part of that plan, dealt with concerns that some of the group’s roots might be lost when staffers planned to leave their longtime headquarters on the edge of campus.

Now that the department is more centrally located in Suite 402 at the Student Union building, Vela wanted to make sure the new space feels like home both for current students and alumni.

“This mural is meant to capture history, tell an important story of perseverance and success, while also inspiring our youth and future leaders,” Vela said.

He reached out to Alfredo Davalos, who created the mural in 1996, to see what could be done for the trip across campus. They considered moving the original mural, but feared it might break because it had become one with the wall.

Davalos instead created a new mural in the spirit of the old one, but with more history, women, icons and success stories from various parts of the Latino diaspora.

The reimagined mural showcases a larger-than-life visage of Chavez, then incorporates iconic historical figures and the 40-year history of El Centro Chicano.

“The mural embodies our pride and reminds us why we are here — to be student-leaders and leaders in the community,” said Christian Sibrian, a business administration major at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Since transferrering to USC in January, the 21-year-old junior has spent a great deal of time at the center, first as a student-worker and now simply as a Latina.

“I wanted to engage in the community — it’s a special part of my life,” Sibrian said. “This center gives students a chance to connect. As a student of color … it feels like home.”

El Centro Chicano houses more than 20 Chicano and Latino student organizations and dozens of programs. Its efforts have resulted in such innovations as the Latino Floor in student housing, which aims to ease the transition into Trojan life, the Chicano/Latino Graduate Celebration, an event that draws more than 3,000 people, and the creation of the Latino Parents Association.

The group’s new location, which overlooks International Plaza and the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, features a kitchen, computer lab and a flexible space that can be modified for use as an auditorium or study lounge.

“Though the space is new and improved, El Centro remains the same core for Latino students at USC,” Vela said. “We’re in the heart of the USC campus. That gives us exposure and provides our students a more convenient location.”