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Latina at Duke: Lots to speak out about

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Her father is a first-generation immigrant from Ensenada, Mexico; her mother is of Scottish and English descent. As part of a small minority of Latinas on Duke University's campus, Hilary McKean-Peraza's background is important to her.

Recent media reports, locally and nationally, have highlighted both the female and Latino sectors of Duke's campus--first with the release of the Women's Initiative report on Sept. 23, in which women voiced concerns about their emotional and physical well being on campus, followed quickly by the highly publicized outrage after Sigma Chi fraternity's "Viva Mexico" party, where the invitations were expired green cards and "border control" was at the door.

It was a quick succession of events. But sitting in the middle of Duke's campus, Hilary seemed to understand all of the publicity within the context of larger American society.

"Racism and sexism are not new things," she said. "There are no short-term solutions."

Unfortunately, her experiences with sexual harassment, gender inequality and harmful stereotypes, both personally and second-hand, were not as a short or simple.

When looking at colleges three years ago, Peraza, now a junior, envisioned herself on a campus with a healthy balance of men and women.

"I wanted to be in a place where women were helped," she said, "...in a community that fostered women."

However, Peraza said that Duke has not provided the completely safe environment she had hoped for. Her keys, adorned with extra-strength mace and a safety light, subtlety attest to her concerns. "If women are not careful, they are in for a rude awakening," she said.

In addition to concerns about physical wellbeing, Peraza said emotional safety is also on her mind. The recent report found that females at Duke strive to be "the perfect woman," an ideal Peraza said "plagues the female campus." However, she is thankful for the emotional security she has, a trait that she attributes to her supportive family. "Ultimately, you can't be perfect," she said. "You can only strive to be your personal best."

For Peraza, her personal best involves school and community activism. Refusing to be a spectator, she volunteers at the Durham Rape Crisis Center and speaks candidly to her friends about sexual assault, something she tagged "the first line of defense."

Peraza has also taken an active role in the Latino community, first as the freshman representative and then as the academic affairs coordinator for the Latino student group Mi Gente.

Peraza said she was shocked to hear about the Sigma Chi party. Her first reaction was, "this has to be a joke." She said she "was really angry as a Mexican."

After the initial shock wore off, Peraza said she recognized that the incident provided a great opportunity for candid discussion. She said she was pleased with the mature way that the Sigma Chi fraternity has been dealing with the Latino community's reaction. In fact, her main criticism is the media's handling of the story. She was angry that the media is "making Sigma Chi into a scapegoat."

On the surface, the news does seem bleak, back-to-back stories of racial and gender discrimination on Duke's campus. But Peraza is right; the story is more complex than it first appears. Instead of ignoring the stereotypes and misconceptions that the Duke community holds, the university is in the process of publicly recognizing its shortcomings. Hilary McKean-Peraza sees the future in this dialogue--she is not letting the conversation pass her by.

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