When Maritza Santiago-Torres first started working at Penn in 1997, she saw the need to build a community for Latinx students on campus.
“When I first started working at Penn, the only cultural centers in existence were the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the LGBT Center,” she said. “Latinos didn’t have a place that they could call their own.”
During her 23 years at Penn, Santiago-Torres created a home for Latinx students at La Casa Latina, the main hub for Latinx students located in the basement of the ARCH, as its office coordinator for over 20 years. Retired from her position on Aug. 17, Santiago-Torres evolved from a staff member to a “maternal figure,” 2005 College graduate and 2010 School of Social Policy & Practice graduate Cecilia Ramirez said.
“During my first year at Penn, I didn’t feel like I really knew my place on campus,” Ramirez said. “La Casa Latina was so warm and welcoming. [Santiago-Torres] in particular really took me in like she’d known me for years.”
Three years before coming to Penn, Santiago-Torres moved from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia to live closer to her sister. She started working with low-income communities in North Philadelphia at Welfare Back to Work as the community outreach coordinator. In 1997, she began working at Penn in the Romance Languages Department as the circulation manager of the Hispanic Review, a journal devoted to research in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian literatures and cultures, and later joined the Latin American and Latinx Studies program as the administrative coordinator.
When Santiago-Torres realized Latinx students at Penn lacked a home away from home, she began attending meetings and writing emails to administrators to help create a Latinx cultural center. In September 1999, Penn established La Casa Latina where she started working as the office coordinator, the center's first full-time staff and her first full-time job at Penn.
Every day on the job looked different for Santiago-Torres, known as the “madrina,” or godmother, of La Casa Latina. When she was not planning events and completing budget work for student groups and events hosted by La Casa Latina, she could be found talking to the many students who stopped by her open door office to see her.
“I always saw myself [being office coordinator at La Casa Latina] as more than a job,” she said. “Whatever was needed at that very moment, I would do it. It didn’t matter if it was not included in my job description.”
2013 College graduate and La Casa Latina Associate Director Kareli Lizárraga said she deeply respected Santiago-Torres' work ethic and passion that she brought to the job every day.
“Having her as a co-worker has been really amazing, because she’s such a source of amazing ideas and always knows where to find the best bargains [for food catering for La Casa Latina events],” Lizárraga said. “It’s such a testament to the kind of person she is — incredibly resilient, creative, tenacious.”
Santiago-Torres said interacting with students was the most rewarding part of her job. She spent much of her time at work providing snacks for students to brighten their day, and giving advice and encouragement to students who were struggling in academics.
Ramirez recounted memories of Santiago-Torres listening to her "nonsense stories and problems" in between classes and always stocking her favorite snack, a combination of peanut butter and cereal. Every time Ramirez walked into La Casa Latina, she said Santiago-Torres greeted Ramirez as if she had not seen her in years.
“When I was a graduate student, she helped me through a really big tragic event that happened to me in my personal life,” Ramirez said. “I don’t think people realize just how critical a person like [her] is to the survival of students of color at Penn. I don’t know that I would have graduated without [her].”
Even after graduating from Penn, 2012 College graduate Ollin Venegas came back to visit Santiago-Torres and talk about applying to medical school. He said Santiago-Torres listened to his concerns and offered warm words of encouragement during the four years after he graduated from Penn and before starting at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in 2016.
“When I got in, she was so happy,” Venegas said. “Ever since then, she’s referred to me as ‘mi doctor.’”
Venegas was vice president of MEChA de Penn, a group founded in 1994 to celebrate Chicano/Mexican-American, Latinx, and Meso-American culture, history, and dialogue on campus. MEChA de Penn meets and resides at La Casa Latina.
“I hope to pay her back, or at the very least pay forward, everything that she did for me,” Venegas said.
During her time at La Casa Latina, Santiago-Torres established emergency funds for students who needed financial assistance to pay for essentials, such as textbooks or prescription refills, and traditions, such as the Latinx Community Banquet and the Latinx Alumni and Student Brunch. She said she is grateful to have been a part of creating this strong legacy at La Casa Latina, so students and their families would look forward to these traditions year after year and consider La Casa Latina their home away from home.
For many Penn students, Santiago-Torres became a part of their family and they introduced her to their partners, parents, siblings, and kids.
College senior Adriana Gonzalez-Camarena said she met Santiago-Torres at her brother’s Penn graduation, because her brother was also involved in La Casa Latina.
Santiago-Torres told Gonzalez-Camarena that when she retired, she wanted to throw a party for all the students who have impacted her life at La Casa Latina.
“I talked to [Santiago-Torres] recently and I’m like, ‘I don’t care how long it takes for COVID to clear up, we will have that party for you. You deserve it,'" Gonzalez-Camarena said.
Santiago-Torres said she has seen La Casa Latina grow throughout her time at Penn and more students utilizing its resources and coming to its events. She hopes La Casa Latina will continue to grow and occupy its own house or building on campus in the near future.
For years, Penn's main minority group coalition, known as the 6B, has been calling on the University to provide the cultural centers located in the basement of the ARCH — Pan-Asian American Community House, Makuu, and La Casa Latina — with a more prominent space on Locust Walk.
As a Jehovah's Witness, Santiago-Torres has helped members of the Latinx community study the Bible and plans to continue doing so after retirement. She hopes to focus on health advocacy work for bloodless medicine — medical care without the use of blood transfusion sought out by Jehovah's Witnesses and other patients — for Spanish-speakers in the Philadelphia area.
“When I see the beautiful words that [students] sent me when they found out I was retiring, it brings joy to my soul,” Santiago-Torres said. “I said, ‘You know what? Well done. It was worth it.’”
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