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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

La Vida at Harvard

July-August 2004

This April, the inaugural issue of La Vida Guide to Harvard highlighted the College's thriving Latino community. In the wake of the popular Black Guide to Harvard, which came out last spring (see "Being 'of Harvard,'" May-June 2003, page 53), the book fills a void that many undergraduates — including the Hispanic students who make up 8 percent of the College — have long felt. But the publication date, after months of toil, was two years late for La Vida's editor-in-chief, sophomore Iliana Montauk. "I wish there had been something like La Vida when I first arrived," she says. "One of the first things I wanted to know when I got here was where I could go for Mexican food and salsa rueda dancing." Salsa rueda — a dance style now popular in Miami — is found only at one place in Harvard's vicinity: Sophia's, near Fenway Park in Boston. La Vida will tell you how to get there.

The idea for La Vida came to junior Leyla H. Bravo last spring when she attended a publication party for the Black Guide hosted by the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. Bravo suggested the idea to Fuerza Latina — a Latin-American student group that promotes Latino diversity on campus through dance and other cultural events, on whose board she served — and got a green light and some funding to pursue the project under Fuerza's sponsorship. With additional grants from the Harvard Foundation and the Undergraduate Council, and a donation from the Office of the President, Bravo began looking for fellow students to help write, edit, and produce the book. Montauk, a Belgian-born Polish American, signed on as an assistant editor in September; but when Bravo was later elected president of Fuerza Latina, she tapped Montauk to take the helm.

A Latina take on Harvard Square. Andrea Gonzalez '06 snapped and digitally altered the scene for La Vida.

Montauk, who is also a Crimson writer, was charged not only with editing the book, but with responsibility for its design; she also became acting business manager during most of the production process, after the incumbent quit. La Vida soon morphed from an extracurricular project to a full-time job for its nine editors: Montauk herself began spending upward of 100 hours a week on the guide, which went to press in March. At one point, more than 40 students were busy with historical research, writing, editing, Web design, and business assignments (advertisements provided half the book's budget). Latino groups on campus were asked for input. The editors see their guide as a work in progress; they have a website (www.lavidaharvard.org) offering updated calendar information and plans for yearly revisions.

La Vida details the Latino groups on campus, which have proliferated and diversified in recent years as students have pursued special interests and causes. From HOLA (Harvard Organization for Latin America, which helps foreign-born students adjust to campus life) and Latinas Unidas (for Latin American women) to La O (La Organización de puertoriqueños en Harvard) and CAUSA (Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association), Latino students have a plethora of resources to speak to their individual identities and interests. The inch-thick guide also offers interviews with Harvard notables; essays, fiction, and poetry centered around the theme of Hispanic identity; and photo essays from Mexico, Boston's Jamaica Plain, and Berkeley, California. On the practical side, La Vida has a Spanish slang dictionary, useful facts about Spanish-speaking countries (including travel opportunities and grants), and information about on- and off-campus social events, restaurants, clubs — and dance classes.

Montauk attributes her interest in Latino life to growing up in Berkeley: "How could a person living in a place where a third of the population is Latino not be interested in Latino culture?" she asks. Despite its Hispanic name, she and La Vida's other creators assert that their book is not meant solely for Harvard's Latinos. "We want this guide to educate people about the diversity of Latinos," Bravo says. "It caters to everyone — especially to those interested in Latino or Latin American culture, but we want everyone to flip through its pages." Adds Montauk, "Latino life in Boston is very different from what it's like in New York City, California, or Miami. Boston residents might find our book useful for finding their way around their own communities."

~Rebecca O'Brien