Veronica Mendez-Cruz, director of El Centro de la Raza, recently retired after more than 28 years of service. Although she is retiring to take care of her family, many members of the University of New Mexico community who consider her their “second mom” will miss her.
Mendez-Cruz earned an undergraduate degree at New Mexico State University and shortly after, took a job working with Children in Need of Supervision (CHINS). She came to UNM for graduate school and studied at UNM’s three ethnic centers as part of her program. “At that time El Centro was known as ‘Chicano Student Services,’’ Mendez-Cruz said. “During my studies I noticed that Chicano Student Services wasn’t getting as much student traffic as African American Student Services or American Indian Student Services.”
Following graduate school, Mendez-Cruz became a career counselor at UNM, a job she held for eight years. During that time, the ethnic centers were going through a transitional period. Chicano Student Services became Hispanic Student Services (and eventually El Centro de la Raza) and was looking for an interim director. Mendez-Cruz was encouraged to apply and got the job.
Mendez-Cruz attributes the success of El Centro to staff keeping up with what’s happening in the Latino population and finding ways to make it better. “We always remember why we were created by the students as a place to gather, to debate and get degrees,” she said. “The students know that the center is their home away from home—a place where they can feel comfortable.”
Her hope is that El Centro continues to evolve, and that 25 years from now a Latino Institute of Higher Learning will be open to everyone. Eventually, she would like to see a Latino-themed living learning residence hall. “Twenty years ago we went from a $40,000 budget to a half million dollar budget,” Mendez-Cruz said. “It may take us another 20 years to evolve past the stereotype of being seen as only an ‘activist organization’ to more a place where in addition to being an institute, social activism is aligned with professionalism.”
For more information, visit El Centro de la Raza.