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The Boston Globe

Latino Guide Adds Spice To Harvard Life

Monica Rhor, Globe Staff

April 25, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Leyla Bravo felt alone and out of place the day she first saw the Harvard campus as a freshman three years ago.

Bravo, a Nicaraguan immigrant raised in Miami, missed the intermingling of Spanish and English on every street corner. She was embarrassed when people pulled away when she tried to kiss them on the cheek in accepted Latino fashion. She craved the flavors of her mother's home cooking: the platanos fritos y gallopinto, the tortillas y fritanga.

At Harvard, Bravo faced misconceptions and a feeling of isolation she had never known. She decided that she did not want other Latino students to confront such campus culture shock alone. They needed a guide to navigate life at Harvard, something that would unite them as a community, make them feel comfortable on campus, and, at the same time, dispel some stereotypes.

And so "La Vida at Harvard," a glossy 290-page guide to Latino life on campus and in the Boston area, was born. The first 2,000 copies reached the Harvard campus April 17.

The guide, created by Latino students, provides insight into their experiences on the predominantly white Ivy League campus. Latino enrollment at Harvard averaged less than six in the mid- 1970s, the guide says. Today, about 8 percent of the roughly 6,700 undergraduate population is Latino.

"When I got my acceptance letter to Harvard, I cried," Bravo writes in the guide's introduction. "I cried because I got in. I cried because I would leave my parents. And somewhere in those seemingly endless tears, I cried because I thought I would never fit in."

To make students feel more at home, "La Vida" explores Puerto Rican and Dominican enclaves in Jamaica Plain; Mexican and Salvadoran neighborhoods in East Boston, home to bookstores with Spanish-language volumes; and Latino arts centers and civic organizations. Salvadoran, Colombian, and Cuban restaurants, bakeries, and dance clubs are also featured.

"When I first came to Harvard, I would tell my mother there's nothing here for me. I didn't mind the food, but I wanted some home cooking," said Bravo, 20, now a junior and president of Fuerza Latina. "As far as churches, I did not think there was a Mass in Spanish anywhere."

Through her work on "La Vida," Bravo found dozens of restaurants including the Montrose Spa Deli, a little-known gem just a few blocks from the Harvard campus that makes authentic Cuban sandwiches. Spanish-language Masses also turned up in abundance. The guidebook lists 34 churches offering services in Spanish, including 17 Catholic churches, seven Pentecostal, and 10 other denominations. Also inside the guide are listings for campus activities, scholarships, and grants. The Latino neighborhoods, restaurants, and stores described include directions.

The cover of "La Vida" features a digitally altered photo that transforms Harvard Square into a Latino neighborhood, with flower vendors, fuit carts, a Cuban cafe on one corner, men playing dominoes, and a brightly painted bus known as a "chiva" driving around the rotary.

"La Vida" is modeled after "The Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard," the quintessential student handbook for more than 30 years that prompted alternative guidebooks such as "The Black Guide to Life at Harvard," "The Handbook to Asian America at Harvard and Beyond," and "The Women's Guide to Harvard."

"La Vida" had input from several guidebook editors, Bravo said. A staff of three Latinas grew over a year-and-a-half into a 40-person operation, with writers covering the campus and the Boston area in search of Latino life.

Benigno Varela, 20, a Harvard sophomore from Puerto Rico, said being one of the few Latinos on campus made him feel like a "real minority student" for the first time. Working on the guide, he discovered that many of Harvard's faculty are of Latino heritage, including his organic chemistry professor. The guidebook includes profiles and interviews with Latino professors.

"When people see Latinos, they don't think of us as scientists, but it made me realize we can get there," said Varela, a pre-med student and biology major.

Staffers are selling the books for $12 at campus dining halls and through Fuerza Latina. Bravo hopes to get it into local stores and on

"I cried when I saw the first book," said Bravo. "I remembered my freshman year and all the anxieties I went through. Now I feel like no Latino will go through that again. It was a wonderful feeling."

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