14 years ago today, a group comprised primarily of Latino students rushed into Day Hall demanding a meeting with then-president Frank H. T. Rhodes. Though most students on campus were busy getting ready to leave for the Thanksgiving holiday, those inside Day Hall remained there until the administration agreed to hear their concerns. The four-day peaceful occupation — from Friday, Nov. 19, 1993 to Monday Nov. 22, 1993 — would be immortalized in Cornell and national archives as the Day Hall Takeover
Earlier in the fall of 1993, the Johnson Museum worked with the Hispanic American Studies Program (today’s Latino Studies Program) to bring a group of Latino artists to Cornell. The artists installed eight site-specific pieces on campus for the exhibition “Revelations/Revelaciones: Hispanic Art of Evanescence.” The most controversial installation was a piece by Daniel J. Martinez entitled “The Castle is Burning.” The piece consisted of eight feet tall wood panels that divided the Arts Quad into many sections. Messages were written in letters two feet tall atop the black wood walls. The message that provoked the strongest reaction from the Cornell community read: “In a rich man’s house the only place to spit is in his face.”
Shortly after the exhibit opened, vandals painted a swastika and profanities on the wood panels and tore down some of the letters and panels. Arguing that the University wouldn’t protect the piece of artwork, a group of Latino students linked arms around Martinez’s installation, forcing many people trying to get to class on the Arts Quad to turn around and take another route. Later that same day, the human barricade marched to Day Hall and began their takeover of the building.
It is imperative that today’s Cornellians recognize that the Day Hall Takeover was about much larger concerns than a piece of vandalized artwork. Latino students were frustrated with the University long before the exhibition came to campus. Jacqueline Buelvas ’96 summed it up in a Syracuse Herald American article published at the time: “We don’t have the kind of support systems that other segments (of the college community) have …We’re being neglected.” While inside Day Hall, the students outlined their grievances with Cornell in a list of nine demands. Though the first demand was directly related to the destruction of Martinez’s artwork, the following eight demands addressed bigger institutional problems.
Two main concerns were that the university had a dearth of both Latino faculty and courses focusing on Latin-American history. During the Takeover, Earl Lopez ’94 pointed out to The Ithaca Journal that over 25 percent of the students in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations were minorities, but there was not a single minority faculty member in the college. The students’ last demand was for the University to create a Latino Living Center by the following school year; indeed the LCC, housed in Anna Comstock Hall on North Campus, opened its doors to students in the fall of 1994.
While the Day Hall Takeover was the result of collaboration between a number of students, Eduardo Peñalver ’94, president of La Asociación Latina at the time of the Takeover, was a major spokesperson for Latino students. It was Peñalver who announced from a bathroom window in Day Hall that the protesters would be leaving the building. It was also Peñalver who emphasized the need for protesters to remain unified when one group wanted to remain in Day Hall and another wanted to leave.
It is easy to see why students placed so much of their trust in Peñalver; shortly after the Takeover, he was selected as one of just 32 Americans to win the prestigious Rhodes scholarship. He then went on to Yale Law School and to clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Peñalver chose to return to Cornell, this time as a professor at the Law School where he currently teaches.
14 years after the Day Hall Takeover, many concerns that students had in 1993 are still present. In particular, the lack of Latino and other minority faculty is an issue that has gone largely unaddressed by the University. Although Cornell employs more Latino faculty today than it did during the Day Hall Takeover, numbers still remain small. According the University Division of Planning and Budget, during the 2006-2007 academic year only 41 of Cornell’s 1,627 faculty members teaching on its Ithaca campus were Latino. Perhaps even more shocking is that there were a total of just 233 minority faculty members during the last academic year. Though Cornell has come a long way since the Day Hall Takeover, it still has a long way to go.
Sarah Olesiuk is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Archive This! usually appears alternate Fridays.