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Their experience, our legacy: a brief history of Hispanics at Rice

by Alberto I. Roca, Ph.D.

De donde eres?

This deceptively simple question of where you are from can be difficult for a Hispanic person to answer. Where were we born in the U.S.? Where did our immigrant parents come from?

Maybe our sense of identity is derived from that first time in our lives where we felt independent. For many of us that occurred in college when we left our families and entered a new institution with its own unique relationships. I would like this article to explore the question of where Hispanic support groups at Rice came from.

This is by no means a definitive historical account. But I hope this is the beginning of an ongoing process for others to pursue: recollection, education and, for some, catharsis.

Four years after the Rice Institute was founded in 1912, the first student clubs organized. In the 1926 Rice Campanile, it is reported that the Spanish language club, Los Buhos, was formed to allow members to practice their speaking skills. Such Spanish clubs existed in different forms throughout Rice's history such as Sigma Delta Pi ('50s), Club Iberoamericano ('70s), or RuLaLa ('90s).

However, I am more interested in the organizations whose members shared more in common than just Spanish. Instead, Latino friends came together informally and formally because common experiences, family life and values united them. Unfortunately, much of the early record of such groups is difficult to find, but I encourage others to be more persistent. I also ask that Hispanic alumni contact HACER so we may benefit from your experience.

As far as I can tell, Hispanics on campus did not have any formal clubs before the '70s. Instead, they socialized together as most friends usually do. On the other hand, in the early 1920s, Mexican businessmen in Houston formed a social and cultural organization called Club Mexico Bello. Mexican Rice students would participate in their activities such as picnics and formal dances.

In 1964, Rice changed its name from "Institute" to "University." In addition, the university charter was changed to allow the entry of all students regardless of ethnicity. However, the active recruitment and support of Hispanics students was limited. In 1972, Dr. Richard Tapia, professor of mathematical sciences, formed the Rice Association of Mexican-American Students (RAMAS). The first president was David Ramos ('75) a science and engineering student from San Antonio.

Tapia says he was motivated by his graduate school experience at UCLA. Support groups for Mexican-American students were common in California, so as a young professor he decided to create one at Rice. In 1972, the group consisted of about 25 Mexican-American students, but it also was open to all members of the Rice community.

There were three goals: Educate the campus about Mexican culture through lectures and music and art festivals. Second, recruit Hispanic students at high schools throughout Texas. This was to counter the trend where the talented minority students left the state to attend college. The last goal was to provide a support group on campus. Dr. Donald Niño ('79) notes that the club held a meeting during orientation week to allow Hispanics to meet one another. This eased the transition to the Rice experience.

Brian Quintero ('84) was the last president of RAMAS. In 1984, the club changed its name to HACER, which originally meant Hispanics Associated with Cultural and Educational Revitalization. Holly Ackley ('84) was the first president. The change reflected the fact that Hispanics at Rice were no longer of just Mexican descent. Activities included bringing Hispanic music, food, and films to campus. The club also participated in the university-wide International Night banquet with more than 200 people from the various cultural groups on campus. Similar HACER and campus-wide events are held today. Browse through this newsletter to see how active the club has become.

But long before any of these groups existed, there were individuals. In the 1920's, Houston had a population of 300,000 with less than 5 percent of Hispanic descent. Most were Mexican and most did not have access to higher education. Let me introduce you to one who did.

Primitivo Niño ('28) was not the first Hispanic to graduate from Rice, but let this story serve as one example of an early individual with "ganas." Niño was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. While in grade school, his family immigrated to Edinburg, Texas. He later became a naturalized citizen.

I came to learn in interviews with his children that Primitivo was a very intelligent, but humble individual. In a very understated manner he would conceive clever solutions to problems and implement them without fanfare. Once, for instance, he refused to waste his day waiting in line for a driver's license renewal. After assessing the situation, he walked to the beginning of a long row of people and announced "I'm starting a new line." Other people waiting were confused, but then quickly filed in line behind him. What person would not relish such ingenuity?

Primitivo entered the Rice Institute in 1923. From one point of view Mr. Niño led a typical undergraduate Rice experience. He was a mechanical engineering major, a member of the student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and on a baseball scholarship. He also took 5 years to graduate, which is what current students affectionately call the "victory lap."

However, another part of Primitivo Niño's life is invisible in his senior yearbook. Whereas the original Rice Institute charter actively discouraged the matriculation of African-American students, Hispanics snuck inside the hedges by blending into the majority population. But at what sacrifice? The desire for an excellent education should only take away hard work, sleep, and money -- not our culture.

What may seem trivial to some can speak volumes to others about inclusion. Primitivo Niño's name is missing an "~" under his senior photo of the 1928 Campanile. His mother's maiden name is mistakenly listed as his first name. These are obvious identifiers of his Mexican heritage, but there were only a few on campus who could relate.

Primitivo lived off-campus and socialized with the small but close Mexican community in Houston. He was a charter member of Club Mexico Bello. Together with his fellow Rice classmate, Francisco Chairez, they enjoyed events which catered to their cultural tastes. At one of these concerts, Primitivo met his future wife, the pianist Natividad Perez. They were married in 1929.

The Mexican community also served as a support network. This was necessary since chronic poverty was widespread among Mexicans during the late 1920's. Thus Primitivo worked odd-jobs to pay for his living expenses. He also relied upon the kindness of his Mexican neighbors. Every hungry undergrads will appreciate the following story that Thomas Kreneck chronicles in his latest book, Felix Tijerina.

Primitivo's typical commute to Rice was a walk down Main Street. One day he entered the "Original Mexican Restaurant" for a quick meal. A young Felix Tijerina served him coffee and a doughnut. During the course of their conversation, Felix discovered that Primitivo had little money and yet was attending Houston's most prestigious college. Felix was impressed with the fellow Mexican's accomplishments, and they quickly became good friends. In addition, Felix supported Primitivo's education by treating him to lunch on many occassions. Kreneck's Del Pueblo reports that Mr. Niño's "education achievements were touted by el pueblo as examples for Mexican American youth to emulate."

Let me now address another side of minority life during that age. Who knows if Mr. Niño suffered discrimination at Rice because of his ethnicity? Primitivo's children say their father did not talk much of his college days. We do know that Rice's early years were also characterized by the ethic "work hard, play hard." According to No Upper Limit, the Institute banned hazing in 1922 "after many years of sustaining a reputation as the second-worst hazing school in Texas".

Back then freshmen were known as "slimes." The Engineering Society was disbanded in 1941 after its hazing practices got out of control. There was also an unfriendly climate throughout Houston in those days. According to Del Pueblo, "Mexican Houstonians were the victims not only of urban dislocation but also of discrimination at the hands of mainstream society and of random violence."

After he graduated, Primitivo worked in an engineering firm but stayed for only a short time because of the hostile environment generated by his co-workers. This is the anecdote that his family retells. One of his first tasks at the company was to operate an engine lathe even though he was inexperienced with it. Regardless, this resourceful man found a faster and better way to run the machine. The other veteran workers became jealous of Primitivo's success especially since a Mexican had bested them. The next day Primitivo was shocked to find that his locker had been vandalized and his clothes cut up. Disappointed with this incident, Primitivo left the company and decided to become his own boss. He found success by establishing a company, Niño's Repair Shop, which created and maintained steam boiler systems in Houston. He was such a unique resource in the city that he worked until his early 80s. He passed away in 1989.

Clearly today's U.S. Hispanics are enjoying a new era where it is cool to be Latino. The environment at Rice is also different. For example the March 2000 issue of Hispanic magazine ranked Rice the second best university for Hispanics in the United States. We should be grateful for the hardships endured by our ancestors. Their very existence on campus ensured that their descendants would enjoy an education coveted by so many. To this end, Primitivo's daughter, Cristina ('58), and two grandsons, Donald ('79) and Arthur ('86), are also Rice Owls. Dr. Donald Niño is active in SOLAR where he passes on sage advice to young HACERitos.

What other stories are missing from the written records of an earlier age? More than 85 years have passed since the beginnings of our university. I do not want to dwell on the mistakes that have been made. It is unfair to hold previous generations unequivocally guilty of the high politically correct standards that we aspire to today. But we must never forget. Let us celebrate past accomplishments and educate the opinions that we still reject. I encourage all alumni to teach us, your children and grandchildren, about the past. We want to know: where did we come from?


  • I would like to acknowledge interviews with Cristina Cox-Niño ('58), Brian Quintero ('84), Thomas Kreneck, and Drs. Dorothy Caram ('55), Donald Niño ('79), and Richard Tapia.
  • many Rice Campanile yearbooks
  • the October '72 issue of Rice's High Enterprise (predecessor of Rice News)
  • Del Pueblo: A Pictorial History of Houston's Hispanic Community by Thomas Kreneck, 1989
  • Felix Tijerina: Houston Entrepreneur and 20th Century Mexican-American Leader by Thomas Kreneck, 2001
  • No Upper Limit: A Historical Look at Rice by Rice University, 2000
The citation for this article is:
A.I.Roca, "Their experience, our legacy: a brief history of Hispanics at Rice"
El Tecolote, Summer 2000
© 2001-2003 HACER, Rice Univ last modified 12-4-2000