The College of William and Mary’s centuries-old history includes a complex timeline of cultural shifts that have continually changed the landscape of the institution due to movements led by its students. In the 2020-21 academic year alone, students have witnessed a national news cycle characterized by hate, violence and vast inequality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And rather than ending there, students, especially those of color, have suffered through the localized effects of the pandemic and revitalized calls for racial justice. At the forefront, student activists have led conversations and affected change in our community in a time that couldn’t be more crucial.
Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society, or PLUMAS, is one of the College’s newest student-run social justice and activist groups. Established at the University of Maryland College Park in 2013, PLUMAS has grown to include a number of chapters in Virginia, from the University of Virginia to Virginia Commonwealth University and most recently at the College.
Yannira Lopez Perez ’22, Rai Rocca ’22 and Jordyn Hodge ’22 founded the College’s chapter of PLUMAS with hopes of creating a safe place for students to be educated on issues facing the community and to create plans for direct action to support marginalized students at the College, especially those of color.
“…for me personally, I believe that politics and Latinidad are inherently intertwined, you can’t separate our histories without acknowledging the politics of it.”
“At the beginning of our time at William and Mary, we saw a need for a place to talk about these issues and to learn from one another because I personally believe that a lot of learning can come from those within your community, and learning from one another,” Lopez Perez said. “And for me personally, I believe that politics and Latinidad are inherently intertwined, you can’t separate our histories without acknowledging the politics of it.”
Lopez Perez explained that while there are two student organizations specifically centered around the Latin student population, the social organization Latin American Student Union and the sorority Sigma Iota Alpha, they are both inherently limited in what they can do based on the social nature of their organization or the exclusivity of a being a sorority, respectively.
“We want to create a space that serves our communities and supports our communities — so that’s done through listening to one another,” Lopez Perez said. “And a lot of it is empowering one another and encouraging each other to know that we are much more capable than we could ever think we are. We are able to create change that many people want us to not think that we’re capable of.”
Instead, PLUMAS acts as a means to rally political action while also being a place where students can feel safe, make friends and lean on each other for support.
“I think another thing is supporting each other in a community sense,” Lopez Perez said. “Creating a space that people want to come back to — I don’t want this to be a space where ‘Oh we have to do work, we have to organize this.’ No, we can just be friends, like hanging out in some room talking about whatever. And that can lead to new ideas blossoming for PLUMAS.”
Rocca and Lopez Perez made clear that PLUMAS exists to provide support for any and all social justice issues facing the College and the greater Williamsburg community.
“One thing we want to do no matter what is center the voices and experiences of Black and brown students on campus. We’ve found that oftentimes many organizations say they want to do this, but how do we ensure this? How are we intentional about doing what we say and saying what we do?”
“One thing we want to do no matter what is center the voices and experiences of Black and brown students on campus,” Rocca said. “We’ve found that oftentimes many organizations say they want to do this, but how do we ensure this? How are we intentional about doing what we say and saying what we do?”
Most recently, calls to change campus buildings named after racist and slaveholding historical figures resulted in a Student Assembly referendum and student demand for the Board of Visitors to acknowledge and work toward a solution. Lopez Perez commended her close friend and PLUMAS member Salli Sanfo ’22 for her organizing efforts in the renaming movement and knew that PLUMAS could do more to help.
“She’s done a lot of work in regards to renaming. We saw she needed more support, more people backing her up and using direct action, which again, is one of our pillars,” Lopez Perez said. “So if it meant organizing something the night before, we were willing to put in that work.”
She further explained that she and fellow PLUMAS member and co-founder Jordyn Hodge ’22 were meant to speak on a panel on the experiences of students of color at the Mar. 8 Board of Visitors meeting when the panel was canceled at 10:30 p.m. the night before, prompting students to instead organize a protest at the Alumni House in its recess. Lopez Perez called the last-minute cancellation a “slap in the face” to her, Hodge and Sanfo, as well as those in the Student Assembly.
“Our stories are valuable. If anything, they’re lucky to have ever heard our stories.”
“Our stories are valuable,” Lopez Perez said. “If anything, they’re lucky to have ever heard our stories. That is kind of why we decided to create the protest right before because we’re like, ‘No, you can’t silence us, you’re not going to just forget about us like that ,you’re going to hear us whether you like it or not.’ But it speaks really clearly to the mission of PLUMAS, we are capable of much more than we think we can be so it may be tiring, but we were able to do it.”
Whether it be through organizing last-minute protests, collecting mutual aid or painting and chatting on the Sunken Garden while reenvisioning a future of the College free from its racist past, the College’s PLUMAS founders hope that every member walks away with a better understanding of the issues concerning their community.
“Every aspect of our lives is political, no matter what,” Rocca said. “The home is political, the university, everything is political. So that’s why education is a big part of PLUMAS, and understanding the roots of the issues.”
PLUMAS is the group that its founders wish they’d had as freshmen, but are working to make this a reality for students for years to come even after they’ve graduated.
“That’s what I would want — a space where people want to come back to,” said Lopez Perez. “A space that people can go back to and be like, ‘This was like a home away from home. This was a place where I felt safe. This is a place where I felt heard, like, this is a space where I felt supported in my ideas.’”