Latino Native American Cultural Center: “A home away from home”

Nancy “Rusty” Barceló

Hay que resistir

Hay que organizar

Hay que agitar

Hay que demostrar[1]

Salvador Ramirez

When Nancy “Rusty” Barceló first arrived from California to Iowa City, she only met another mexicano at the University. She recalls in an interview a meaningful statement made by her mother, “you know Rusty, where there is one Mexican, there are probably others” (Different voices, 1988). Her mother was right, there were other Mexicans in Iowa.[2] Latinos have been coming to the Midwest since before the 1900s, but only a few of them were at the University of Iowa. With her mother’s words in mind, Rusty worked for years to create a welcoming space for Latinos and Native American students at the University. The Latino Native American Cultural Center (LNACC), known as the Chicano Indian American Cultural Center (CIACC) until 1994, was founded in 1970 by Rusty Barceló, Antonio Zavala, and Ruth Pushetonequa. When Rusty joined them as the group advisor, Zavala and Pushetonequa had already organized the Chicano and Native American Union, as Zavala writes, “[Rusty] had a great skill at understanding and listening…she always kept her head. Ruth and I were much too angry during those days to be nice to people.”[3]  Empowered by those feelings they founded the CIACC, and their actions have been a source of inspiration for future generations of Latino and Native American students at the University of Iowa.

Rusty became the first Mexican American to earn a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa. The foundation of the CIACC or La Casa was just the beginning of a journey that kept Rusty in Iowa for over two decades.[4] After its foundation the CIACC became a welcoming space for Latino and Native American students, it was the place to host cultural celebrations, organize community engagement events, plan conferences, discuss issues that affect their communities, and above all the center was a place where students could be themselves. The center provided Chicano and Native American students with a safe space, and a sense of belonging, they could cook meals, speak their native languages and listen to their music. The cultural center is located at 308 Melrose Ave, Iowa City. In 2021 the center celebrated its 50th anniversary.[5] 

The testimonies of former members speak of the value the center had in their experiences at the University of Iowa. Zavala one of the founders writes in a letter dedicated to the 10th anniversary:

“The center has been sort of a cultural first-aid station where Chicano and Native American students can cure themselves of accumulative hang-ups. I found many students change from Joe to José and from being publicly embarrassed of being Mexicano and being proud of it…” (Antonio Zavala).

Rosa Heredia, class of 79’s said, “it was a good support system, my home away from home”.  Daria Garcia wrote the CIACC was “a place for the Raza to grow.”[6]

During my internship at the UI Special Collections & Archives, I have access to the CIACC/ LNACC archives, and it has been a gratifying experience to learn its history, including activism and community engagement. Additionally, the numerous conferences organized by the students illustrate the concerns they had for the academic development of the Chicano and Native American students within the university campus and surrounding communities. These young minds saw the need for representation and realized that the University was not actively recruiting students from their communities. They took the issue into their own hands by uniting forces to create a positive change. As Rusty states, “our goal was to identify and recruit Latino and Native American students” (Different voices, 1988).  

Through the years the members of the CIACC founded several other student organizations that focused on sharing their culture and fostering an inviting place for new Latino and Native American students. Some of the student organizations such as Bailadores Zapatistas–a folklore dance group, Teatro Zapatista, and Conjunto Zapatista would perform at different events at the university and surrounding towns. Other students were part of Curanderos, which focused on the representation of Chicanos and Native Americans in health. The center organized several conferences and invited guest speakers such as Corky Gonzales, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherríe Moraga, Lee Cook and Dr. Roger Buffalohead, to mention a few.

The members of the center volunteered in the communities, in Muscatine and West Liberty they worked with the children of migrant workers, “to make a difference to these chicanitos, …. not all their teachers have to be Anglos”[7].  The CIACC organized visits to various high schools and community colleges around Iowa to recruit and host cultural events. They also visited prisoners at the Anamosa and Fort Madison penitentiaries. Furthermore, the center had the newsletter “El Laberinto” and the magazine, “Nahuatzen,” both publications provided a space for the students to write about their experiences and inform the community of their cultural and educational events. Students wrote poems, songs, reports, and opinions on current events that affected their communities.

 I have been interested in The United Farm Workers (UFW) movement of the 1960s and 70s and to my surprise, the students at the Chicano Indian American Cultural Center were actively involved in the effort to support immigrant farm workers. They participated in the lettuce boycott in 1972[8] and had a fast in 1975[9]. The UFW was led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, both of whom visited Iowa City to speak with members of the CIACC.

As Humanities for the Public Good (HPG) intern at the UI Special Collections & Archives, I will conduct oral histories from past and present members of CIACC/ LNACC to honor, preserve and celebrate their experiences. I believe in the power of stories, written and oral. Capturing stories ensures representation and awareness.

[1] Salvador Ramirez, keynote address at “Refleciones de la Raza: Chicanos in Education, conference at the University of Iowa, 1975


[3] “Looking back” letter written by Antonio Zavala for the 10th anniversary celebration



[6] Daria Garcia CIACC student manger. “El laberinto” newsletter (1986)  

[7] Testimony in the “Laberinto” Newsletter



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