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Associated Press

Hispanics' Guide To Harvard Gives Students A Taste Of Home


May 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - The sandwich they make in the hole-in-the-wall store just off the Harvard campus looks like a simple grilled ham and cheese. But to a native of a sunnier clime, it has the flavor of home.

"It's the greatest Cubano sandwich. It's even better than I can get at home. It's actually made by Cubans," said Adrian Maldonado, a 21-year-old Harvard senior from Puerto Rico. "It's so close and nobody's heard about it and it's really the best."

The specialty of the house at the Montrose Spa store a few blocks north of Harvard Square is one of the dining hints offered in "La Vida at Harvard," a new guide to all things Hispanic at Harvard and its environs.

The guide's authors are students, many of whom are Hispanic and who have had to make adjustments at a university that can be colder and preppier than the sunny, multilingual places they grew up in. They hope the guide will ease the transition for those who follow in their footsteps.

Much of the inspiration for the guide may have come from the students' stomachs, said Iliana Montauk, the 21-year-old sophomore who is editor-in-chief of the guide.

"You get the sense that for most people, it starts with the food. They want food like they had back home," said Montauk.

But the guide goes beyond restaurant reviews. It offers everything from a history of Hispanics at Harvard to guides to Hispanic neighborhoods in the Boston area. It lists everything from Spanish churches and bookstores to the best places for salsa dancers to whirl away the night.

"It's a book for Latinos and it's a book for people studying Spanish and doing Latin American studies. It's a book for people interested in Latino-American or Latino culture," said Montauk, who is not Hispanic, but says she felt her own dislocation coming East from California for college.

The 290-page glossy guide was sponsored by Fuerza Latina, a Hispanic student organization. While "The Unofficial Guide to Life at Harvard" has been an essential student handbook for more than 30 years, alternative guidebooks have also been written for blacks, Asians and women.

Thirty years ago, Montauk said, only a small handful of Hispanics attended Harvard. Now, approximately eight percent of undergraduates are Hispanic.

Leyla Bravo, a 21-year-old junior who was born in Nicaragua but came to Miami as an infant, had the inspiration for the guide.

In an introduction, she wrote about missing the sound of Spanish interlaced with English on every street corner and yearning for her gallopinto, platanos fritas, tortillas and fritanga.

"The skies weren't a constant blue, the beaches were far and the waters were cold. I had lost my Latin American paradise," she wrote.

"Here, I just felt like it was a lot colder in many senses," she said in a recent telephone interview. "I wanted something that would warm things up, I guess."

"There needed to be a guide, a resource for Latinos on campus, just in general, a centralized resource. And now they have a guide to do that," said Bravo, who is now president of Fuerza Latina.

Two thousand copies of the guide have been printed. They are on sale at the Harvard Coop and by mail order and they've also been sold on campus. They have also been distributed free to students who will be entering Harvard in the fall. The plan is to update it every year, Montauk said.

Maldonado said he faced new experiences at Harvard. When he arrived, his only cold-weather gear was a few sweaters. He soon realized his mistake and went out to buy a puffy coat that made him look, he said, like an astronaut.

Snow was new. So were the bowties that some students wear.

"I love the bowtie kids. ... I definitely didn't see any bowties at home. That was a new thing for me. That was extra special," he said.

As a freshman, Maldonado said, he craved the foods of home, but didn't know how to find any. He said he joined the guide to help students find places to eat off campus so they could avoid the cafeteria food.

Checking out the Montrose Spa earlier this year for the guide, he ordered the Cuban sandwich -- pork, ham, mortadella, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on French bread "heated to perfection on our grill" -- and found something clicked.

"The owner was the one working the desk and he just started talking to me in Spanish. It was like talking to somebody from home. He started telling me his whole life story and his wife would chime in. It was really a nice experience, right here in Cambridge, and I never would have expected that," he said.

"I wish everybody would pick up a copy of this guide," he said. "They would eat better in Boston and they would know more about the Latin-American community."

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