Mapping Early 20th Century Latino Social Worlds at the University of Michigan

A visualization of Latin American and Latinx student locations on campus: A Story Map of the Birthplace, Campus Residence, and Post-Graduate Residence of Early Latin American Students

The University of Michigan has a rich and diverse history and a multitude of documents on the entire history waiting to be explored, but students so rarely relate the campus surrounding them to the artifacts in the Bentley Historical Archives. The communities, organizations, and networks are continuously moving and changing, but the land they are on is always in the same place. By studying an archive that includes student records, articles from the UM publications like the Michigan Daily, the Michigan Alumnus, and the student yearbook, the Michiganensian, we can begin to map these worlds opening an understanding of early life at Michigan that is much more rich. The first Latinx students may seem so distant; they often came from far away, had different customs, and had an entirely different college experience than students today, but they lived in the very spots where we now conduct our daily activities and thus are inextricable from our lives today. Evidence of their lives on campus, from their courses of study to their social and athletic pastimes, can be gleaned from their Alumni files, census records and articles about these activities in the Michigan Daily. Thanks to the preservation of the Bentley Historical Library, we now know that the blocks where the first Latin American and Latinx students lived are now central spots on campus: directly across from Angell Hall, across from the old Ulrich’s store, or even where the Burton clock tower now stands.

Today, students live in learning communities, with their friends, or near their extracurriculars, so it is possible to understand a lot about them based on where they lived and with whom. In the same way, a lot can be discovered about the lives of the earliest Latinos. Beginning with members of Latin American Club, the search for the earliest Latina/o students led to about sixty names, all of which were male. The exclusion of females from this dataset is regrettable and without them our understanding of the Latinx community can never be complete, but working with what is available led to an idea of at least the lives of early male Latin American students. Based on their addresses, it is clear that they lived close to each other and based on their correspondences and organizations, it is clear that they collaborated with fellow Latin American students from their own and other countries. A simple set of data: addresses, majors, and careers can tell us so much about the seeds of the Latinx community. This builds only a skeleton of who these individuals were, but it is a step in the right direction as the general public, and even the UM community, know very little about early Latinx students. What attracted Latin American students to Michigan, who were they and what would bring them here? After a brief search that only touches the surface of what there is to know about the first Latinas/os at the University of Michigan, it is evident that they existed and thrived at the turn of the century and even before.

The Earliest Students

At the University of Michigan, the importance of increasing diversity is clear, but it is necessary to take a look at how we could be suppressing diverse students in the past. During Michigan’s early years, one name stood at the forefront holding all the weight of early Latino student history during that period. Jose Celso Barbosa, an influential Puerto Rican sociologist and founder of a political movement, whose significant achievements in Latina/o history are deduced to remembrance as “Michigan’s first black student”, is the most that the average person might know about Latino contact with U of M prior to 1900. To the university, it was not even worth mentioning that he was Latino; widespread knowledge of Latinx inequality was not yet on the radar as African American inequality was. Likewise, the Latinx population was smaller than today and Latin American culture and history were not yet in the scope of common American knowledge. The label Barbosa was given by society and the university muted both his accomplishments as a statesman and his significance to the history of Latina/o students at the University of Michigan.

Jose Celso Barbosa was not the only, or even the first Latina/o or Latin American student at the University of Michigan. There is evidence that there were students from Latin America at Michigan as early as the 1870s; just a decade after Barbosa’s graduation in 1880, J. T. Canales, a Mexican American from South Texas came to the University to study Law. Like Barbosa, Canales had an illustrious career after graduation, returning to Texas to become a lawyer, and later a State Legislator. Canales was one of the founders of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and a leading advocate for the Mexican-American community of South Texas. And there were others who came to Michigan to pursue their dreams: Quintin and Carlos Martinez came to Michigan to study law and engineering respectively. The Martinez’s enrolled even before J. T. Canales, but they are not often mentioned in the universities’ few accounts of early Latinx students. The Martinez’s may not have pursued careers in their fields after their time in Ann Arbor, and they may not even have graduated, but they were here. Being a UM student was in itself an accomplishment at a time when many people were still illiterate; the Martinez brothers and the other Latinos who were here before 1900 show that Latinas/os had strong ambitions to take full advantage of emerging opportunities in higher education. Latinos knew about the University of Michigan and they were registering as students long before there was a Good Neighbor Policy (1930’s) and Latin American history was even taught in American universities.

Like Canales, many of the earliest Latin American students to break through into American universities were from wealthy families to whom they returned after graduation. Graduates of the 1901 class, Jose and Rafael Guillermety were twin brothers from Puerto Rico who stole the hearts of their classmates. They were “the first champions of Michigan… and were probably its greatest” in fencing. A brief biography written on the occasion of Rafael’s death in 1929, John R. Williams, one of their friends from college, describes the Guillermety twins as “beautiful young men” with “olive complexion of the Latin race,” who came from a distinguished family, and were “carefully reared and schooled in the arts and graces of Spanish culture.” While the author includes a description of their professional accomplishments, it is clear that these men were seen through the prism of race and class while at the University of Michigan, and were remembered in this way even after they left. They were reduced to an exotic otherness in a way that echoes how Jose Celso Barbosa, “the father of Puerto Rican Statehood” is remembered as “the first black student at the University of Michigan.”

A Story Map of the Birthplace, Campus Residence, and Post-Graduate Residence of Early Latin American Students

Where did they come from?

Because the first Latin American students were often from elite families, the majority are from large industrialized cities. Jose Figueras, the Guillermety brothers, and Rafael del Valle were all from San Juan, Puerto Rico and lived at the 400-block of E. University Ave. Jose Sada, Roberto Sada, and Fortunato Villarreal were from Monterrey, Mexico, a center of commerce for international corporations. Emilio Arizpe, a mechanical engineering graduate, was from Saltillo, Mexico, the capital of Coahuila. In this capital city, his family was so influential that there are highways and even a city with the Arizpe name, after the “father of Mexican federalism” Miguel Ramos Arizpe. Capital cities Mexico City, Mexico and Lima, Peru were also popular origin cities for early Latin American students at the University of Michigan. When looking at birthplaces over time, there is a clear trend from the earliest students coming from mostly Puerto Rico and Mexico to later on beginning to draw in students from Colombia, like Juan and Victor Bonilla, or from Chile, like Francisco Luza. As the United States government began to increase connections with governments abroad, the countries themselves became more interconnected. Panamericanism, industrialization, and advertisements in Latin America worked to bring a more diverse student body to Michigan.

Michigan spanish ad in El Estudiante Latino-Americano

What did they do while they were here?

Living Arrangements

Even among international students, Latin American students often lived in close proximity, in the same block or even the same house. Often, individuals from the same country would live in the same area. Popular areas included (date range in which Latina/o occupants were known to reside there):

400-block of E. University Ave (1901-1914)

200-block of S. Ingalls St. (1902-1919)

300-block of S. State St. (1908-1910)

Their student records yield evidence of the spaces they inhabited on and around campus. They also reveal connections between students; at one point, Rafael Guillermety lived at 520 Church St., the same address that Jose Benedicto lived at during the same time period. José also had a brother attending U of M, which expands the network to at least four individuals. José and his brother lived together at 214 Ingalls St., an address where Latino students would live for at least the following two decades. Jose Edward Figueras along with Rafael del Valle also lived near José Guillermety on the 400 block of E. University Ave. around the year 1900. Within the next year or two, Francisco J. Hernandez moved into Rafael del Valle’s previous address. While Ingalls is a bit of a walk, E. University and Church St. are directly next to each other, suggesting that Latina/o students did know each other and identify with each other, sometimes even living in the same homes as boarders even before they were recognized Latinas/os as a group on campus.

Brothers Jose and Manuel Benedicto from San Juan were also part of the first Cosmopolitan Club and solidified the Latino living community at the 200-block of Ingalls St., which was continued by the Puerto Rican M.D. Jose Cebollero and later by Ramon Garcia and Juan Rossello, also from San Juan. Jose Cebollero, Francisco Hernandez, Ramon Garcia, and Juan Rossello all lived together but were not known to be part of the Cosmopolitan Club, so it is clear that the Latina/o community extended beyond the confines of the one club in which they were formally organized as a community. As with the student birthplace records gathered, there was a visible trend over time of where Latinx students tend to live. Prior to 1905, there was a stronger tendency for students to live near E. University Ave, and later they gravitated toward State St. Whether it was for socialization, cultural solidarity, or academic networking, the Latinx students of this era chose to work, study, and live closely together.


Social Networks

The first decades of the 20th century witnessed the growth of Latin American students at the University of Michigan as English replaced French in Latin American primary schools and American universities began to advertise in Latin America (Fajardo). Eventually, Jose and Manuel Benedicto, Emilio Arizpe, and Jose Figueras joined the Guillermety brothers on the Fencing Team as Latinos got involved and excelled in campus life. The transnational network that the Guillermety brothers contributed to was the beginning of a long history of Latina/o communication and solidarity.

Michigan Daily Article on the Fencing Club

The first international students, for whom a place at the university had not been previously defined, carved their own space in the form of the Cosmopolitan Club. Although it was inclusive to students of all nationalities, the Cosmopolitan Club became a significant meeting point for Latinas/os and Latin Americans and served as a space for their community prior to the establishment of the Latin American Club in 1913. The first Cosmopolitan Club at the University of Michigan was formed in 1902 and included several prominent Latinos. Jose Figueras and Francisco Hernandez, previously mentioned as living near the Guillermetys, provided a connection between the pre- and post-Cosmopolitan Club Latino communities, as others would follow in their same living space. Latinas/os were still living in the same areas and communities, but the club was a step closer to formal recognition and representation, like the Cosmopolitan Club having a page in the Michiganensian.

Before Latina/o activism emerged as a major political force on campus in the 1960s, Latinos and Latin Americans were uniting on this very campus. They joined clubs like the Cosmopolitan Club, they established chapters of Latin American fraternities and started organizations like and the Club Latinoamericano. They wrote opinion pieces for the Michigan Daily and even published a national Newsletter: El Estudiante Latinoamericano. They sponsored lectures, lantern shows, and book exhibits, all to better represent their homes and cultures and to protect their own interests as people of Latin American descent. In the context of nearly a century of US Foreign policy shaped by the interventionist Monroe Doctrine (1812), such efforts are hardly surprising (Fajardo). Although they sometimes had to assimilate using Americanized names like Frank or John, they were not afraid to represent themselves as a community, as a whole; united by the idea of a grand, united Latin America (Fajardo).


Keeping in mind that the range of majors offered at the time was very different than today, there are a few majors that stood out as extremely popular among Latin American students in the early 1900’s. With continually increasing industrialization, engineering was the most common degree as it could be used for building infrastructure and working to more efficiently utilize resources such as steel, iron, cotton, and water. Next to engineering, law was a common degree especially with the earliest Latin American students. The Benedicto brothers, Rafael Guillermety, and Jose Figueras all received law degrees. Later, dentistry and pharmacy became popular degrees, possibly due to the effort to deal with diseases such as typhoid and yellow fever that killed many people at this time.

Given the fact that so many of them had to negotiate a language barrier, a new culture, and the cultural prejudices of the time, it is impressive that so many  early Latina/o and Latin American students earned advanced degrees like D.D.S., M.D., Ph.D., or Ph.C. Out of the roughly 60 students surveyed, at least 22 of them earned advanced degrees. From 1904-09 it was particularly popular for Puerto Rican students to pursue Degrees in Medicine: Francisco Hernandez ‘04 became a professor of clinical pathology at the University of Puerto Rico, Arturo Torregrosa ‘06 became a District Pathologist and Secretary at the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and Angel M. Garcia ‘09 became a surgeon at the San Juan Municipal Hospital. These men did not live together, but they likely knew each other and all lived at the same address as other Puerto Ricans of this era. Whether it is their culture, language, anti-imperialist beliefs, or position as minorities, the solidarity between these men clearly went beyond academic interests.

What did they do after they graduated?

While there are many ways that these Latina/o students could have met, common intellectual interests and career goals were one likely point of contact, and by far the most common degree among early Latinas/os was engineering. Industrialization as a force was impacting Latin America; as infrastructure improved and national economies grew, the demand for skilled workers drove those who were able to pursue higher education internationally (Fajardo). At the same time, increasing diplomacy between the U.S. and Latin America made an American education even more useful. For the many Latin Americans who returned to their country of origin after graduation, the rewards of a University of Michigan education were evident. Emilio Arizpe, who earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1901, returned to his hometown of Saltillo, Mexico to construct the largest hydro-electric plant in Mexico. He went on to become the owner of the Saltillo Ice Factory after serving as the assistant engineer in charge of water, sewer, and electric on Mackinac Island.

Record of War Service- DeGoenaga 1905 (1)

These early students may well have been drawn to study in the United States because of an emerging spirit of Pan-americanism sweeping across North, Central and South American continents. Expected to be “leading men” in their own countries, these men took on leadership roles at the University of Michigan and became community and business leaders when they returned to their homes. J.T. Canales was the president of the “Sumner Society” in the Law School. David Fernando Castilla of Mexico graduated in 1899 with J. T. Canales, became a leading a mechanical engineer in Monterrey, Mexico. Also, Manuel del Valle of Puerto Rico, D.D.S. ‘91, was Secretary of his class and later became the President of the Michigan Alumni Association of Puerto Rico. Although many of them did not stay in the United States after they graduated, they spread knowledge they obtained here and strengthened ties between academics of all nationalities. And the ones who did stay made the US their home and eventually became the Latina/o population.

From M.delValle on A.Lopez to UM

Simply by looking at the information that the University of Michigan has preserved on Latin American and Latinx students, which sometimes only includes one or two index cards per student, there is so much to be analyzed and understood about the history that is not easily accessible or commonly known. The reputation of the University of Michigan attracts diverse types of students from all over the world, but without digging deeper the average student is unaware of the specific groups and histories that make it so diverse. Latin American and Latina/o students have not been highlighted in the University of Michigan’s overarching narrative despite their accomplishments and contributions to the university and broader academia. The research done during this project is only the beginning of discovering the complicated and history of the university around us.