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'It’s more than just teaching about Latino-ness and creating support systems, but where you really become a part of people’s lives'

Oct. 17, 2013

When Lillian Casillas-Origel took her first steps on the IU Bloomington campus in 1985, her footwear of choice was combat boots.

Today, 28 years later, she usually sports orthopedic shoes.

Lillian Casillas-Origel.

Lillian Casillas-Origel has been the director of La Casa/the IU Latino Cultural Center for almost 20 years.  | Photo By Chris Meyer

“I was just an 18-year-old kid who got involved right away with the issue of anti-Apartheid, wearing skirts and combat boots. This whole world had kind of just opened up to me,” she recalled.

Casillas-Origel earned a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from IU in 1989 and a Master of Science degree in education in 1998. Nineteen years ago, she became director of La Casa/the Indiana University Latino Cultural Center. The center, part of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, is a home base for Latino students, faculty and staff on the Bloomington campus.

She was honored during La Casa’s 40th Anniversary weekend, Oct. 11 through 13, with the IU Latino Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

She said she was surprised and humbled by the honor, which gave her an opportunity to reflect on a nearly three-decade association with the university.

Casillas-Origel immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old and settled with her parents and her four siblings in northwest Indiana. She is the oldest of five. Her younger sister also is an IU alumna and one of her brothers studied accounting at Purdue-Calumet.

Even after eight formative years in Gary and Hammond, Ind., Casillas-Origel said she didn’t feel comfortable fitting into American culture and society. But after a few visits back to Mexico, she didn’t feel like she fit in there either.

“When I came to IU, I fit, because everyone here was from somewhere else,” she said. “Everybody had a story. I felt like there was an equalizer in the sense that I found a community where there was such diversity, maybe not necessary in the sense of race or other issues, but a diversity of stories and backgrounds and being from somewhere else.

“I finally felt like I belonged somewhere and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been here so long,” she added. “There are so many people here from so many other places and it has never stopped being that.”

Casillas-Origel said each day presents a new opportunity to meet someone new, which also helps her feel connected to Bloomington too.

Her experiences have been instrumental to her role as an advisor to IU students, particularly those who are Latino or Latina.

In addition to directing La Casa, she has served on the advisory board of the IU Latino Studies Program and Indiana Latino Higher Education Council. She is a board member of El Centro Comunal Latino, a grass roots not-for profit organization that focus on the provision of services to and integration of Latinos to Bloomington.

Alice Jordan-Miles, president of the IU Latino Alumni Association and an academic advisor at IPFW, notes that Casillas-Origel constantly supports and is determined to help others, just as she once was helped.

Casillas-Origel as a student in 1987.

Casillas-Origel as a student in 1987.

“Especially for young Latinas, who, as her culture indicates, should be barefoot and pregnant by the time we’re 25 and standing 10 feet behind our man, she has gone beyond her scope of responsibilities, by establishing relationships and rapport with our students’ families,” said Jordan-Miles, a graduate of IU Bloomington and IPFW.

“It has enabled her to gain the trust of these families that will allow the encouragement and support to come from the home, just as it comes from La Casa.

“Lilly is a catalyst to change and a catalyst to improving the lives of students,” she added. “In many cases, she was the key reason why a person stayed at IU, stayed on to graduate and went onto post-graduate work as well.”

When Casillas-Origel was an undergraduate, Latino musical hit makers included Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias, Luis Miguel and Los Lobos. Today, Julio Iglesias’ youngest son, Enrique, is a major star (Los Lobos remains a critics’ favorite).

Personal computers were in their infancy in 1985. Today, students use mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to communicate with each other via email, texting and social media. Fashions also have changed.

Yet, while times have changed since then, many things remain the same. Immigration remains a hot-button issue.

And students -- whether they be Latino or from another heritage -- continue to make cultural adjustments while keeping their feet rooted in “two different worlds” -- the “world of the culture of the family you grew up with and the culture that is here at Indiana University.”

“The basics are not different,” she said. “I might be becoming extinct in other ways, but I am not in where it matters -- that is understanding the experiences of students and of what needs to happen for us to be a really inclusive and supportive community.”

Recently, she spoke to a group of social work students who questioned how Casillas-Origel could be so positive about diversity at IU Bloomington, when the majority of people remain Caucasian. She asked them to think of the campus as a city with a population of 50,000 people.

She asked them to think about how many cities of 50,000 have centers for the GLBT, Asian, Native American and Latino communities, a Hillel House and an active Commission for Multicultural Understanding. She asked them to reflect on the number of entities and people who are committed to supporting each other.

“Another reason I stayed here so long was that I have allies here, who are just as committed,” she said. “This is a setting in which to learn -- not only for the students but also for professionals -- how to connect in really meaningful ways, with people across the board who are … interested in creating a welcoming environment.”

After her family arrived in the U.S., part of her personal and cultural identity slowly eroded as government officials excluded her mother’s surname from official documents. For nearly three decades, she was only officially known as “Lillian Casillas.”

La Casa remains a welcoming place 40 years running.

La Casa remains a welcoming place 40 years running.

When she became a U.S. citizen in 2011, she was allowed to go back to her original name, which included her mother’s surname, “Origel.”

“First thing that happened, I came to IU, submitted my citizenship papers, because you have to notify your employer, and the next thing they’re using my whole name … I came full circle. I became the person that I was when I got here many years ago.”

There are about 1,500 Latinos on campus, but last year, La Casa served more than 10,000 people, including many non-Latinos who participate in its programs. Many students come by several times a week. Others, who aren’t included in the above statistics, have reached out for assistance through email.

Over the years, Casillas-Origel has gone to students’ weddings and been with them at hearings during divorce proceedings. She has been in the delivery room when students’ babies have been born and later at their baptisms. She has been invited to accompany to award presentations. On rare occasions, she has helped parents needing to check in on students. Sadly, she had to identify a student who died.

“It’s more than just teaching about Latino-ness and creating support systems, but where you really become a part of people’s lives,” she said.

Throughout the years, Casillas-Origel has never married or had children. Early in her career, students were like brothers and sisters to her. Today, they are like her children.

“Some people say, ‘You’re married to your job.’ Yeah, I have a relationship with La Casa, but I don’t think it’s a marriage,” she said. “I’ve kind of grown up with La Casa … Through La Casa, I have grown as an individual. I have been able to accomplish so much -- again not only on a personal level but also in what I’ve wanted to do, in advocating for the Latino community. La Casa has been that venue for me.”

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