Slice of Life

Latinx fraternities and sororities give students a sense of belonging

Emily Elconin | Contributing Photographer

José Waimin passed on the role of Phi Iota Alpha president to his best friend, roommate and brother — Benny Rodríguez — at the start of the semester.

Editor’s note: In recognition of Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month, this three-part series spotlights local figures working to increase the representation of the Latinx community in Syracuse and beyond.

Nine Latinx greek organizations are active on Syracuse University’s campus, but many students — including those involved in greek and Panhellenic life — don’t even know they exist.

Organized under the National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, the greek groups are Latinx based, but not Latinx exclusive, said Alicia Torres, president of Sigma Iota Alpha sorority. Each fraternity and sorority has its own goals and history, but the mission is the same: advocating for Latinx culture, issues and unity on and off SU’s campus, Torres said.

Zhamyr Cueva, a Class of 1993 founding member of SU’s first Latinx fraternity, Lambda Upsilon Lambda, has donated personal funds for a landmark honoring the nine NALFO organizations’ presence and contributions to the Syracuse community. The monument will be unveiled Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Quad.

Unlike some SU greek organizations that have hundreds of members on campus, NALFO has about a dozen members per chapter. Because of their size, NALFO groups aren’t always associated as being fraternities or sororities, said Jose Waimin, former president of Phi Iota Alpha fraternity.

“Even though we’re smaller, we’re here, and we make our presence known through our community service, by showing up to each other’s functions and being a support system,” Waimin said.

“We’re a family,” Torres said.

Alberto Lainez
Affiliation: Lambda Alpha Upsilon fraternity

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Alexandra Moreo | Photo Editor

Sitting in class freshman year, Alberto Lainez was constantly aware of himself in comparison to others. In almost every class, lecture or discussion group he was one of the handful — if that — of students of color.

It was a stark difference from his Brooklyn neighborhood, where the mix of identities was anything but homogeneous.

The realization put Lainez in a dark place that manifested from feelings of doubt of whether he deserved the opportunity to be in college. There were times when he would break down in tears.

The feeling of otherness faded the more he grew into his role in the Latinx-greek community.

“There was always a brother that would reach out, and when they reached out it felt genuine,” Lainez said. “It felt like family.”

Lainez crossed into Lambda Alpha Upsilon the first semester of his sophomore year. The fraternity stood out because of the time they took to get to know him, he said. Lambda brothers saw Lainez as a person first rather than as prospective member, he said. They made time to meet one-on-one and reach out to Lainez, making him feel he had a community to call home at SU.

Coming from an area where violence is common and the education system failed most of its students, Lainez said it was refreshing to be among people who not only want the best for you but also want to help you get there.

“What LAU gave me was a reality that I can do this,” Lainez said. “I still feel out of place sometimes, but now I know that I belong here just as much as you.”

Mariah Bermeo
Affiliation: Lambda Theta Alpha sorority

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Jordan Phelps | Staff Photographer

Gold hoop earrings stand out against Mariah Bermeo’s brown curls and sway when she gets passionate while speaking. She dons them almost every day, especially when she’s volunteering with kids or when she knows high schoolers will be on campus.

“Society has this idea that somebody that’s from ‘the hood’ wouldn’t be able to make it to this school,” Bermeo said. “But when they see a girl with her hoops on they can see themselves in my shoes.”

For Bermeo, being a sister in Lambda Theta Alpha is about visibility. Students of color, from low-income homes and from “bad neighborhoods” need to see that representation so they know college is within their reach, she said.

“You’re representing something bigger than who you are,” she added.

In July, the SU chapter of LTA was awarded Political Activist Chapter of the Year. The value her chapter places on activism is what attracted her to the sorority, Bermeo said.

Most of the sisters are involved in other organizations championing for causes like ending sexual assault on campus and increasing mental health awareness. That’s what impressed Bermeo. Even before she joined the sorority, the sisters invited her to be a part of the dialogues they were creating.

“At the end of the day we’re the minority,” Bermeo said. “The world is against us, but if we come together to fight inequalities, that’s when we’re great.”

Benny Rodríguez and José Waimin
Affiliation: Phi Iota Alpha fraternity

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Emily Elconin | Contributing Photographer

Benny Rodríguez and José Waimin are roommates and best friends who crossed into Phi Iota Alpha together. This semester, Waimin passed the role of chapter president onto Rodríguez.

Three years ago, during their freshman years, neither wanted to join a fraternity. Syracuse was Waimin’s first home in the United States, and going greek wasn’t on his radar. He was focused on acclimating himself and doing well in class.

But he saw Latinx greeks hosting professional events, volunteering off campus and attending social events. Waimin noticed that many of the greeks were also his classmates in the engineering program. If they could manage school and greek life, Waimin said, so could he.

“I just felt like I was missing out on that part of school, by just focusing on school,” Waimin said.

Rodríguez’s experience paralleled Waimin’s. Every event he saw was sponsored by Phi Iota Alpha or featuring Phi Iota Alpha, Rodríguez said. The fraternity’s prominence on campus is what swayed his involvement.

“Once you get your letters, you’re in the spotlight. There’s this sense of responsibility and different goals,” Waimin said. “I’m no longer just trying to get an education; I’m trying to do something for my community.”

Working for their community takes on many forms, including educating those unfamiliar with Latinx culture, history and issues on campus through events and collaborations. During Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month, the fraternity hosts Sazón Phiota, bringing Latinx food, music and dance to SU’s dining halls, and Fiesta Latina.

If they as Latinxs don’t take on that responsibility, nobody else will, Waimin said. That responsibility means taking an active role in the city’s Latinx community through partnerships with organizations like La Casita Cultural Center, he added. And it also means graduating.

“A way of fighting against the system is empowering yourself with knowledge,” Waimin said. “Fulfilling this chapter and becoming a professional is a way I can help my community. We need that representation in the professional world.”

Alicia Torres
Affiliation: Hermandad de Sigma Iota Alpha

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Emily Elconin | Contributing Photographer

Linked with her six line sisters, Torres performed on the Quad in front of hundreds of her peers for NALFO’s Stomp the Quad 2016.

Among applause and “woot woots” at the end of the performance, Torres said she felt a sense of belonging. She crossed into Hermandad de Sigma Iota Alpha a few weeks earlier and wasn’t sure she and her sisters would be able to pull it off.

“At that moment I realized that I was part of something bigger than myself,” Torres said.

When Torres is with her fellow Latinx-greeks she can have conversations about the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Hurricane Irma’s effect on the Caribbean or the microaggressions of the day without giving a debrief beforehand.

They already get it.

While Torres feels a responsibility to educate others, it can be exhausting, she said.

“If it’s not personally relating to you then it’s hard to speak about it and hard to open up about it,” she said. “Thankfully we have members in NALFO and our organizations that we can lean on.”

Echoing the sentiments of other NALFO members, Torres said she didn’t intend to go greek. But Sigma Iota Alpha took her heart. What sealed her decision, she said, was the philanthropic and professional focus of the organization. SIA is the only NALFO organization with a local, national and international philanthropy. To Torres it felt like the full package.

“With SIA there is no cookie-cutter sister,” Torres said. “We all bring something to the table.”

Now NALFO is home.

Five of NALFO’s organizations, including Lambda Pi Chi sorority, Lambda Upsilon Lambda fraternity, Lambda Sigma Upsilon fraternity, Omega Phi Beta sorority and Sigma Lambda Upsilon sorority were unavailable for comment. The organizations will be featured in an upcoming story as more information is reported for the Latinx Series.

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