Flannel shirts, pink handkerchiefs tied around their heads and either baggy jeans or shorts were on display as five sorority girls from Cal State San Marcos decided to dress up as “cholas,” or Latina gang members from the West Coast, at an off-campus retreat.
But students and university officials weren’t laughing at the representation by the Alpha Chi Omega sorority in photos that made it to Facebook and Instagram, because many find the portrayals offensive to Latinos.
“The campus community voiced concern regarding the incident and as a campus we responded by facilitating discussion and meetings,” a spokesperson for the university told NBC Latino. “As a campus community this was an unfortunate incident and will be an opportunity for growth, reflection and education.”
Sorority president Megan Koelln issued a tearful apology during one of the university meetings.
“We apologize from the bottom of our hearts,” Koelln said, according to UT San Diego. “It was a mistake and a lack of education on our part.”
Students said they were offended by the portrayals by the five girls, some of whom were Hispanic.
“They have no notion or understanding of the ramifications these pictures can create,” said Maria Uribe to 10News in San Diego. ”We don’t feel safe. We feel a constant ridicule or mockery of our culture. We, as students, as Latina, Latino students, we hold a certain privilege that we’re here on this campus, that we’re able to have a higher education access, but the communities that we leave behind, they don’t have the same kind of access that we do, so for us to see the mockery of certain cultures that we co-exist with on the daily, it triggers… it brings something to mind like, ‘Wow, we really don’t matter.’”
The university, which is in the midst of a five-year strategic plan to address diversity issues, is adding additional sensitivity training for Greek organizations and exploring educational requirements for student organizations. In response to the incident it is also accelerating the timeline for a “bias incident network,” which will be a structured system to report incidents of bias or racism.
The chola photos aren’t the first incident that provoked outrage at Cal State San Marcos. In a 2008 incident, university resident Karen Haynes was photographed at a “fiesta-themed” party dressed up in a Mexican hat and poncho.
The university responded to that incident by discontinuing “celebrations that were themed around ethnic and cultural background.”