Taylor Leigh, Spring 2023
On December 6 and 7, 2022, an exhibit took place at the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) that celebrated the presence and activity of Hispanic students at the University of Kentucky throughout time. The exhibit, “Documenting the Presence of Hispanic and Latinx Students at the University of Kentucky,” was created at the request of a Hispanic Studies faculty member, Professor Heather Campbell-Speltz, who wanted to bring students enrolled in SPA 211 and SPA 208 to the SCRC to see first-hand the history of Hispanic student life at UK. The curators of the exhibit, Ruth Bryant (University Archivist) and Taylor Leigh (Librarian for Hispanic Studies) created the exhibit by building upon the great work that had already been completed by an alumna, Daniela Gámez Salgado (class of 2020). Having worked in University Archives as an assistant during her time as an undergraduate, Daniela became very familiar with the historical materials that the SCRC already contained on this topic, as well as the gaps that existed in the collection. Perhaps the most striking work that Daniela completed while a student was an article titled, “The History of Latino Students at the University of Kentucky, 1865-2019,” which, in turn, led to a photograph exhibit featured in William T. Young Library during the fall of 2019, A Visual History of Latino Students at the University of Kentucky, 1865-2019. Ruth and Taylor made extensive use of Daniela’s work, but also sought out additional sources in University Archives to include in the present exhibit. As these efforts made clear, the exhibit’s theme will never be comprehensively documented; it will require iterative and ongoing updates in the future.
The exhibit itself took place in the Great Hall on the second floor of the SCRC, a very impressive environment to appreciate historical materials. Each day, once the students had arrived, we briefly described the materials they were about to see and instructed them on how to behave in a special collections library. It was important to let them know that, while touching the materials is not prohibited—on the contrary, materiality is a very important aspect in encounters with historical documents—there were certain rules in place to maintain the integrity of the objects and respect their creators. To facilitate the students’ experience, we created a scavenger hunt activity in which they had to find answers to questions by exploring the various parts of the exhibit.
We divided the exhibition into five sections, mainly by time period: 1) Enrollment and Statistics; 2) 1940s-1950s; 3) 1960s; 4) 1970s-1990s; and 5) 2000s-2020s. The number of materials in each section varied greatly depending on what we had found in the archives. We have very little information, for example, about the presence and experience of Hispanic students at UK before the foundation of the Latin American Student Association in the 1960s. Furthermore, there are certain historical challenges that are difficult to overcome; for example, the imprecision of the terms used in surveys and demographic statistics prior to the 1980s, or the fact that early documents hardly differentiated between Hispanic students and other international students. Once we get to 1990s, the documentation becomes clearer. It is there that we learn of the immense contributions made by Alan Aja and Melanie Cruz, former presidents of the Student Government Association, and Ricardo Nazario Colón, former president of the Black Student Union and former director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center. And, once we are in the new millennium, another impressive figure emerges in the form of Ruth González Jiménez, alumna of this university, co-founder of the current iteration of the Latino Student Union, and the first to hold the position of Latino Student Community Specialist. So, while many of UK’s early Hispanic students remain unknown (with a few notable exceptions), the students who have comprised the Hispanic student body over the past 30 years shine much brighter. It is our hope and expectation that we will continue to learn about this population going forward as we find more materials in the archives or acquire them through donations.
Currently, a virtual exhibit is being created that replicates the physical exhibit. This will allow the general public, and not just University of Kentucky affiliates, to learn about the history of Hispanic students at UK. In the meantime, a PDF version is available and is linked below.