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Account of May 5th incident at Centro by community member and alumn

"I opted to use my training in nonviolent crisis intervention and violence de-escalation to assess and diffuse the level of hostility being incited by the students"

Update as of 06/01/2023

In light of the wide distribution of this letter, I would like to provide some context as well as make a couple revisions, which I mark with an asterisk* and elaborate on at the bottom of my letter.

This is my personal account of what occurred on May 5th, 2023. Here I provide my perspective not only as an alumni, but also as a transgender, queer, FLI, immigrant from Colombia who has been involved in movement and community building for over a decade. Many alumni, friends and colleagues asked why no one called campus police. Even at the height of the aggression displayed by students towards us specifically, Elvira's and my primary concern was towards the wellbeing and safety of all persons present. And so as someone committed to community-based accountability and safety practices, I opted to use my training in nonviolent crisis intervention and violence de-escalation to assess and diffuse the level of hostility being incited by the students who organized and led this 'protest'.

--- Original 05/06/2023 Letter to Alumni ---

Dear friends,

It is with great disappointment that I am reaching out today to tell you about unacceptable and perturbing actions that took place this past Friday, May 5, 2023. A number of undergraduate students defamed and attacked El Centro and the professional staff. Perhaps the most misguided, misinformed and distorted of all efforts were their personal and targeted attack on current director, Elvira Prieto.

I personally witnessed these actions and feel it is crucial to share my account here. I am able and willing to talk in more detail as requested.

We were in the midst of a Cafecito—an event that Elvira began in 2010 which you may remember—in collaboration with the Queer Student Resources Center (QSR) in the community room (old computer cluster room) when a group of students with banners, megaphones, speakers and microphones, drums, pots and pans* stationed themselves outside of the community center. They began taunting ‘Elvira! We’re here for you! Elvira! Come out, Elvira! Come out, Elvira!’ Some of the students who had been waiting for the action to start while enjoying the Cafecito and pan dulce we were providing (or anxiously waiting in the lounge) then joined in the action. It was immediately clear the level of aggression students had come with. I personally had to escort two people, a colleague and one student, outside through the Old Union courtyard, because they felt unsafe.

I then proceeded to rally the few student staff members who had stayed to help me clean up the event that had been disrupted by what had become an incited crowd.* One particular student refused to move as I tried to clear the items and free mugs we had been handing out at the event and tried to square himself up to me, even as we tried to make space for the ‘protesting’ and witnessing students to be able to sit and be safe without blocking entries or exits. As we finished that and I proceeded to check in with the students in the lounge, one student stopped me. This student looked frightened and told me that a male student had walked into Elvira’s office (where the Wellness Room used to be) and gotten in her face and closed the locked door behind him. Another student in the lounge was sitting close by without saying anything but clearly listening and looking vigilantly at the locked door. When I opened the door, I saw the student standing so close to Elvira, who had Luna in her arms, that only Luna’s small body stood between this student and her. He was speaking hurriedly and insistently at Elvira, who was calm, and claiming that Elvira had locked herself in her office to not listen to students. I let Elvira know that we had been able to clean-up the event items and was able to diffuse the situation as we asked the student to step out of the office so that we could now give our full attention to the ongoing ‘protest’. At that point, I went outside to check on the students and space at the entrance of the community room. From my observation, at least one of these students smelled of alcohol and it appeared to us that some others were intoxicated, which put me on high alert particularly when the student who smelled of alcohol stepped up to me, getting in my face, trying to stare me down and physically intimidate me—which I am told, he also did to Elvira.

When I came back after briefly escorting a frightened student out of the center, I made my way into the community to ask students to open the windows in the space for more ventilation. I was then checking in with more undergraduate and graduate students, and colleagues who were visibly shaking or horror stricken, when I heard the inflamed crowd demanding for Elvira and professional staff to come into the center of the room, where there was barely any space to stand. They began shouting, taunting ‘you and your precious hunger strike Elvira,’ and banging on the drums and the center’s pots and pans because we did not walk into the center of the room as they demanded. At this point, I stepped into the circle as a part-time, temporary professional staff member, to suggest that if they would like the professional staff in their midst to listen to their list of demands and testimonies, that we needed to move outside to a ventilated area and for everyone’s personal safety (as again, the crowd was so incited, and the room so packed, that it was a fire and safety hazard). The students again violently shouted at me and banged their instruments repeating “Pro-staff do not speak here!”

Unfortunately, half of our student staff members had joined the ‘protesting’ students so I was able to reiterate to them via text that we were willing and open to listen to them but only if we could go to a ventilated and safer space. At this point, Elvira and I stepped right outside of the center where they could see us. It took the students 5-10 minutes to realize that we were indeed just asking them to be safer and they did join us outside to continue their ‘protest’.

They proceeded to read their demands and ask students for testimonies. Students with a great amount of distress and pain spoke, some speaking about interpersonal conflicts, others about conflicts that have arisen from the opposition campaign to students restarting Mecha (formerly M.E.Ch.A) that has been launched over the past year, others about the lack of representation of Caribbean, Central American, Haitian, Indigenous, and South American identities at El Centro. Students made accusations against Elvira specifically being anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, anti-Undocumented students, and much more. The level of misinformation, false narratives, twisting of facts, and also outright lies was sadly very reminiscent of Trumpian tactics and rallies, all cushioned with ‘decolonizing’ and progressive language. I want to clarify that because I was there and have been working on a part-time basis since February, so I know for a fact that a handful of the students who testified were explicitly lying, as well as twisting the truth and fabricating content against Elvira and the professional staff.

Throughout the sharing of demands and testimonies and afterward, I was having students come up to me with their flyers and taunting me because I was not taking them, even though I told them I had already received several. Sadly, it was such an antagonistic and violent atmosphere that any slight movement from Elvira or myself (Margaret was out sick for the day, and our other professional staff member was not present for the hour that we were outside listening to the students) resulted in jeering, shouting, and banging of instruments. One example was when they screamed violently “Get off your phone! Get off your phone!” at Elvira for looking at her phone momentarily to answer our colleague’s concerned text (Snehal Naik, Senior Director at the Office of Student Engagement)—not to mention that Elvira’s family member has been on bedrest and Elvira is listed as her emergency contact. This is a good moment to pause to also let you know that Elvira has been battling with a Bell’s Palsy flare up since early 2023, which ‘protesting’ student staff members have known about. In fact, Elvira had just returned from a short health leave the first three weeks of April to deal with this chronic illness and had been inviting comunidad to come meet during her open office hours.

As you all know, I have been an active advocate for inclusion and expansion of our communidad's outreach to students of all Latin American backgrounds and lived experiences, and a key player in the four-year process to rename El Centro to its current name of El Centro Chicano y Latino. As I mentioned, I have been back on a part-time support role since February to help El Centro come back to their full functioning since the pandemic shut-down. Since arriving, I have worked with Elvira, Margaret, and Jacob (our professional staff team) helping students to know that the Centro exists and that it’s open to all students, as well as training student staff to do basic project management, event planning, space reservation requests, greeting visitors, and even helping them as they struggled to adjust to in-person meetings. All the while, we have been having an influx of students meeting with Elvira, Margaret, and Jacob (and eventually myself) to tell us about anti-black, anti-indigenous, anti-Central American, and anti-Mexican rhetoric between students that had occurred last academic year and this past Fall Quarter via social media, the anonymous Fizz app, and at Zapata, El Centro, and other community spaces.

To address this, the professional staff took steps to meet with students harmed and those accused of doing harm, and began discussions with our beloved colleagues at the Native American Community Center (as well as other community centers) to be able to offer students support. We decided a town hall was something that we could offer our comunidad in order to hear their concerns, but time and time again we were approached by students who had more and more information to disclose about harm that had occurred. We therefore postponed our townhall and sent out a pre-town hall survey in order to further hold healing space with students and student staff, and to discuss possibilities for the town hall, and eventually what will be focus groups. Lies have been spread about our unwillingness to work with our colleagues to offer the townhall and space for students to voice their concerns; all the meanwhile, we have continued to send out messages to comunidad that Elvira is hosting office hours; reaching out to CAPS, wellness coaches, and chaplains on campus to offer further support to our students; [as well as hosting programs representing a range of diverse Latinx perspectives in the short time that we have been fully open since Spring 2022 (including Caribbean, Central American, Indigenous, Black, and South American speakers, guests and community partners.)]

While not all of the misinformation and lies can be corrected in this space, I felt the need to share the bare minimum with you all. We were planning to have a series of listening sessions for seniors this Spring, a town hall meeting and focus groups in the Fall Quarter, and Peacemaking Circles with trained and culturally-sensitive facilitators (and communicated general plans to students who expressed their concerns, as well as worked on confirming specifics as fast as possible to let all of comunidad know). Yet, instead of working with us towards a productive, peaceful and accessible town hall, students rallied around misinformation to pre-meditate an attack on El Centro and direct it personally at Elvira. Unfortunately, some of our student staff members were participating in this event, even some whom I have personally asked multiple times to meet with me to plan the town hall and who never took me up on the offer. I also want to let you know that some of the false accusations are coming from recent and current student staff who have had multiple significant indiscretions and breaking of staff protocol and community values.

Sadly, there are many misconceptions, outright lies, and a lot of twisting of facts that are spreading in our comunidad and networks and over social media. We will be working on continuing to do community building and healing work as Elvira, Margaret, and I always have. I'm sure you will begin to hear more about it, if you haven’t already. One of the murals at Zapata has been vandalized in the recent past over similar issues by some of the same students ‘protesting,’ without regard to the social justice and Central American history of the person and reason for which it was painted. I hope we can prevent further vandalizing of our comunidad spaces given the students' demands for “new murals… and removal of [alleged] offensive murals.”

And so, I am reaching out to you at this time asking you to provide words of support to Elvira, and on behalf of Elvira in writing to any and/or all faculty and staff at Stanford whom you feel comfortable contacting. Furthermore, if you are comfortable, I would like to ask you as my personal alumni friends and acquaintances to help us correct the record on Elvira’s and Centro’s past 10 years (if not more) of creating an inclusive and safe space for all of us. Please help us correct the record and rhetoric that is out there that Elvira is 'anti-Indigeneity', 'anti-Blackness', ‘anti-Haitian’, 'anti-Undocumented', ‘anti-Caribbean’, 'anti-Central American', 'anti-South American', anti-anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish, 'pro-cis het men', 'pro-Mexican hegemony', and exclusionary of Asian and multiethnic identities. This is particularly important because as you will see from my attachments, students are caught up in such a flurry of hurt that they have not been able to differentiate true from false, right from wrong, and are speaking for us as alumni, claiming that Elvira and Centro have been actively and intentionally ignoring and hurting students from marginalized communities for decades.

And lastly, I would also like you to ask that if you do see these posts from current students, that you please do not amplify their misinformed messages. Join us as we continue to listen with open hearts and critical minds to the various voices in our comunidad.

Thank you for reading and for investing yourself in the important community conversation that needs to happen at Stanford and in our alumni community.

Best Regards,
Davíd Eli Patiño, Class of 2014

*I have omitted the words "eventually our own center's pots and pans" as I did not personally see students grab these items from our kitchen and have heard accounts confirming the students' statement that they had brought pots and pans with them.

*I have omitted the words 'the likes of a riot.' The words ‘riot’ and ‘mob’ have been historically used against people of color to justify violence against us. I believe this 'protest' was violent and deeply harmful to our community, and that students were caught up in hive-mentality. But I do not want to contribute to the criminalization of our communities.

Original document: https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vRRpswWgMHw4SV2delurRgCd_ds…

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