When history professor Juan Carlos Mercado arrived in New York more than 30 years ago, he could not speak English. Today he is the dean of the City College of the University of NY, an institution founded in 1847 that was the first free university in the United States, it is part of the City University of New York (CUNY) and has more than 15,000 students. Mercado was born in the La Pampa province, and went into exile in 1977, during the last Argentine military dictatorship. He met his American wife in Madrid. He was a painter, sold books and finally arrived in the city where he works. The College is in Harlem, but for eight years, dean Mercado has had his office in the heart of Wall Street. "From its origin, the intention of the College was to create a university for poor and immigrant people, to receive the children of the rich and the children of the poor in a classroom. The ethnic configuration of the immigrants changed, but the idea remains the same. We have students from 170 countries, and 90 languages are spoken here," he says.
What is that migrant population like?
60% of our students receive financial aid, which means they are families that do not exceed the poverty line and have practically no payment. As a public university, the tuition is approximately $6,500 per year, which is really cheap compared to other universities that charge $60,000 or $70,000 per year.
What does the financing of the institution depend on?
The pandemic has caused a serious problem, because having gone from face-to-face classes to online has caused a loss of students. And, since the fund distribution system is connected to the number of students you have, if there is a drop in enrollment, your resources will drop. For you to have an idea, if we lost 1% of our students, we lost a million dollars. It is a lot. It is a serious problem because we always have deal with the State for more resources. We have a very strong union that negotiates our contract with the CUNY administration.
40% of the population is of Latino origin.
We have 38 or 39% of Hispanic origin, 30% of African Americans, a fairly significant percentage of Asians, and then the white population. Minorities dominate. The fact that at our university the majority are minorities and, by declaring an institution with a Hispanic majority or an Afro-American majority, you have a much better chance of accessing the resources of a federal government.
You said it is very difficult for Latinos to graduate because they are not full-time students and work is a priority for them.
In a private university, theoretically, they graduate in four or four and a half years. But in our case the graduation level is very low. We are an urban university, with the first generation of university students: they are the economic support of their families, this city is very expensive and in most cases they have to help pay their parent's rent. With the pandemic, there has been an explosion of asynchronous online courses because this is a perfect fit for working students. That is why I have proposed the teacher to be available to the students during office hours, two or three hours a week, to clarify any doubts.
"Working 12 hours a day or having three jobs is often not enough to survive in the United States"
How do you explain that the majority of the student population are Latino and African-American women?
The story is amazing. In the late 1970s, there was a group of dreamers who grew up in Queens, they were Jewish and Irish. Some dedicated themselves to the academy and others dedicated themselves to the unions and decided to create the Center for Worker Education. The first headquarters was on 14th Street, where the teamsters headquarters are located. The relationship between the unions and legislators guaranteed a line in the budget dedicated to this workers' center, and 15 years ago it was decided to turn the center into another division of the College. We specialize in adult workers. 80% are women of color, because women have always been the most vulnerable in everything that has to do with education. In many cases, we have mothers and their children finishing their studies at the same time. Now, 50% of the students we have work and they want a university degree to progress in their professional career. At the moment, there is a great crisis in the American university: in the last 10 years humanities have lost half of the students they had.
What is the cause of this great crisis?
Well, there is a great crisis because the teens who graduate from high school do not see any value in a university degree, specially in liberal arts. No those who are oriented in professional schools like architecture, engineering, science and others, no, that is another story, but the rest... It is a crisis fueled by the fact that the job market is so strong now, they get jobs, they leave high school and get jobs. They are not bad jobs, 25 dollars an hour, they can work in Starbucks, in Amazon, jobs that are very easy to get.
What is the incorporation into the labor market like?
We are signing a kind of agreement between the College and the city of New York, it has to do with training. It is called Workforce Development, training people for the city, which currently has about 20,000 jobs that need to be covered. So, they are asking for our collaboration in terms of training, from teachers to engineers and architects. The university crisis, the loss of students, the diminishing commitment of the states with the public university force us to look for resources from other areas. For example, contracts with companies that need the university to provide training. Everything has changed. I talk to a lot of potential employers and they tell me - except for some professional engineering degree: "I do not care about the degree. What is important for me is that the person we are going to hire knows how to write well, has analytical skills and is presentable." Why? Because we -they say- are going to train him/her. I saw it with my son, who is 25 years old now and graduated two years ago: he was trained by the company he is working for.
In relation to the Latino presence, how has the city changed in this 10 or 20 years?
The changes have been impressive. New York City has lost black, African-American population. Harlem is not what it used to be, it has gone white, it is very expensive to live in, there are first class restaurants and it is much more diverse than it was before. Also, it is very interesting to see the flow of Hispanics in the city. The first immigrants to come are the Puerto Ricans, who settled in what is Hispanic Harlem, surrounding 125th Street. As they have moved in the pyramid, parents have been able to send their children to college and then they go to another areas. Who are those who have come in the last 30 or 40 years? They are Dominicans, who occupy the entire area of what is called Washington Heights, which until recently was an entirely Dominican neighborhood. First generation, workers; later they have a certain socioeconomic level and they can send their children to university, they leave the neighborhood and go to another place. If you go to Hispanic Harlem, what are you going to find there? Mexican flags, Mexican shops and restaurants... I have been here for more than 30 years, there were no Mexicans when I came. The last migration is that of the Mexicans. The Ecuadorian one is very important, the Colombian one -which is in Queens- is very important. The vast majority of Central Americans go to the West Coast.
"Somos el puente entre los latinos y los beneficios que otorga el Estado"
Latinos continue to live in communities.
I always say that ghetto is not a dirty word. The ghetto allows people to feel a little safer in an environment that it is hostile in a way. If you do not speak the language, if you have an accent, if your skin is darker, you are not in your own environment. Even though New York is first world, second world, third world, it is a mess.
Do you agree that the new generations of migrants have a different behavior and know that they are protagonists of the country they come from?
Completely. The change is radical, I can say it from a personal view. 20 or 30 years ago, Hispanics did not want to speak Spanish in public. The question of language has to do with discrimination. Now you do not need to speak English in New York. Everywhere, everything is advertised in Spanish. Spanish is an official language, even if it is not. Everyone speaks Spanish.
What kind of positions of power do Latinos occupy nowadays?
When I came, there were no Hispanic representatives and most of the representatives who come from New York City are of Hispanic origin. The general secretary of the most important union in the city, which brings together city employees, is a Dominican, Henry Garrido. There is also Ydanis Rodriguez, who is the transportation commissioner for the city, a very important position, and then there is congressman Adriano Espaillat. They are all Dominican. In addition, there are two or three Colombian women who are legislators in the state assembly and different associations, such as that of Dominican businessmen who are highly recognized and lobby for the different causes that interest them.
"Los jĂłvenes latinos son antisistema y rechazan las estructuras de poder que sus padres construyeron"
What place does the educational community occupy in the city?
The American is very respectful of intellectual effort. If you are in a pub, in a meeting with friends and you say that you are a university professor, people shut up and let you speak to see what you have to say. In our countries, it is completely different and they immediately think: "This must be a lazy person, an intellectual, a bohemian."
Today Latinos seem even more integrated than African-Americans and do not experience situations of marginalization like them. What do you assign it to?
This is a phenomenon that comes from the time when Reagan closed all the psychiatric institutes. Most of who you see on the street are African-American, even white people, but not many Hispanics. I think there is a reality that still persists: the family is very important for the Hispanic that comes here, it is a kind of help among families. Here it is very difficult for a Puerto Rican, a Dominican, a Mexican or even an Asian to put their parents in an institution for the elderly.
How does student debt affect universities?
Student debt is impressive, it is other crisis that is coming. That is why Biden wants to end this issue with forgiveness.
Biden's forgiveness is for students who depend on the federal government, but there are others who owe private universities and would not be reached.
What will determine their tax return. It is very common here to meet people who have studied History and have a debt of 300 thousand dollars. They have not studied at my university but at Columbia, Yale, Harvard or Princeton and a history professor will never be able to pay that debt. I am a product of the public university, I studied at a public university in Argentina, in Spain and here, but I must admit something: a degree from a prestigious university is the passport for the first job. Not for the second one. The point is what you know and how you do what you know.
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