On Nov. 19, 1993, a group of Cornell Latino students and their supporters marched to Day Hall to demand the administration address on-campus vandalism and hate speech. When the administration refused to speak with them, they staged a four-day takeover of the building.
According to Kety Esquivel ’97, a takeover participant, the protest began in response to an act of vandalism that had occurred earlier that month. Cornell students had vandalized a piece of artwork — “The Castle is Burning” by Daniel J. Martinez, a prominent Hispanic-American artist — that was on display in the Arts Quad.
The artwork was a part of a series of exhibitions called “Revelaciones/Revelations, Hispanic art of evanescence,” in which art by various Hispanic artists was placed around campus.
Martinez’s piece, a set of barricades covered in black tar, was vandalized with messages such as “Cesar Chavez is dead,” “Kill the illegals” and “White pride.” A swastika was also drawn on the artwork.
Esquivel, a native New Yorker, said these messages shocked her when she first saw them on campus.
“The things that they were saying made it such an unwelcoming climate when in fact, this was my home,” Esquivel said. “This is my home.”
Cristina Bañuelos ’97, who was adjusting to her first year at Cornell when the vandalism took place, expressed a similar sentiment.
“It was really shocking,” Bañuelos said. “My expectation coming onto campus was that it was this really diverse place with people coming together because they wanted to be a part of a multicultural, diverse learning environment.”
Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, a sophomore at the time, also reported sensing a hostile environment, saying she felt the vandalism was disrespectful to Cornell’s Latino community.
According to Esquivel, Cornell’s Latino community was dissatisfied with the University’s lack of response, especially in contrast with their rapid condemnation of the vandalism of the Ezra Cornell statue that occurred around the same time.
Campos-Medina said she, among other members of the Latino community, felt the need to take action.
“We were hurt. We were angry. We were upset,” Campos-Medina said. “But we also felt that we couldn’t stay quiet. I worked as hard as any other student on that campus to get accepted to the University, so nobody could tell me that I didn’t belong on that campus.”
The community responded by leading a peaceful protest, joined by many non-Latino students. However, this protest was met with some physical altercations with other students.
Having experienced the hostile campus climate, some students decided that they wanted to speak directly with Cornell’s president at the time, Frank H. T. Rhodes, to encourage him to address the vandalism.
When the students arrived at Day Hall, where Rhodes’s office was, Esquivel said that they were ignored by administrators and told that Rhodes was not present on campus. The students decided to stay in the building, refusing to leave until an administrator would speak with them.
“We did this because we cared [about Cornell], and we believed in this mantra of ‘any person…any study,’” Esquivel said.
During the takeover, students’ demands began to grow. They urged University administration to increase funding for initiatives run by and serving Latino students — including supporting activities for Hispanic Heritage Month, purchasing more books about Latinos in America, hiring more Latino professors and creating a Latino Living Center by the following academic year.
Campos-Medina said she and others believed strongly in these demands. In addition to occupying the building, Lorna Holt ’96 decided to participate in a hunger strike.
“I thought that would be an effective way to make a loud statement, silently,” Holt wrote in a statement to The Sun.
During the four-day-long takeover, the administration threatened suspension and even expulsion for the students remaining in Day Hall. However, after three days of occupation, the administration agreed to speak with the students on Monday, Nov. 22, 1993.
Esquivel said she was proud to have taken part in the takeover with her fellow students.
“We were able to contribute ‘nuestros granitos de arena’ [our little grains of sand] to really make a difference,” she said.
Holt is likewise proud to have participated.
“I am still amazed at what [the takeover] did,” Holt said. “It showed me what activism can do.”
In response to the takeover, Cornell created the Latino Living Center, transformed the Hispanic American Studies Program into the more well-funded Latino Studies Program, hired more Latino professors and created courses that reflected the diversity of the American Latino community.
In addition, the Latino Civic Association of Tompkins County was founded shortly after by a group of individuals who were associated with the takeover — in part, due to the culture of activism that the takeover helped foster on campus and beyond, according to Esquivel.
Bañuelos also commented on the empowerment she felt following the takeover.
“I was active on campus afterwards and felt empowered,” Bañuelos said. “I saw how organizing and action could lead to tangible results.”
Because of the influx of Latino professors and resources that were brought to Cornell, Bañuelos, a Mexican-American student, said she was able to participate in a Chicana conference and take classes within the Latino studies program.
Campos-Medina also expressed pride at the impact the takeover had on the Cornell community.
“We changed the future trajectory of [our] campus,” Campos-Medina said. “I am very proud that we changed Cornell for the better.”
The takeover will be commemorated with multiple events on Thursday, Nov. 16 and Friday, Nov. 17, organized by groups including La Asociación Latina, the Latino Living Center, MechA — Cornell’s Chicanx Student association — and the Cornell Latino Alumni Association.
The programming will include a poster making event at the Latino Living Center on Nov. 16 and a Day Hall takeover alumni panel and discussion at William Straight Hall, as well as a Day Hall takeover walk reenactment, on Nov. 17.
Cristobal Ramirez ’26, a co-chair of MEChA who will be one of the speakers at the commemoration event, emphasized the importance of commemorating the takeover, saying its goal was to build solidarity among Latino Cornellians.
“The primary importance of this event, besides being political, is to build Latino intergenerational solidarity. Not just among the alumni within themselves, but between the alumni and [current students],” Ramirez said. “Latinos in general — but at Cornell, especially — I feel like we don’t have role models that are exactly like us, that are visible. But they’re actually quite a lot of them.”
Ramirez — whose mother is a Cornell alumna and was one of the first residents of the Latino Living Center — noted the current challenges faced by Latino students and organizations on campus. Although he recognized the progress from administration and a more accepting environment in the student body, he said there are funding and planning constraints that do not allow for a cohesive sense of community among Latinos on campus.
“The LLC itself is underfunded. It’s sometimes disorganized. The only big Latino event that we have per year there is the Latino Bienvenidos Barbecue,” Ramirez said. “Never again, is there an event where the community has an excuse to get together in hundreds.”
Despite these shortcomings, Ramirez said he remains hopeful of the possibility of students to reconnect and learn from how alumni overcame challenges to create community and unity on campus.
“I hope that it can be a place for reconnection, and for us youngsters to get to know the people who are in our shoes, who walked upon this very same campus facing very similar issues that we can learn from them,” Ramirez said.
Campos-Medina said she hopes that current Latino students do not take these campus resources for granted.
“I hope they treasure the legacy of the Latino students but also keep working to make it better and make it serve the purpose of their generation,” Campos-Medina said.
Dina Shlufman ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].