Opening Doors of Opportunity

Barbara Mendez poses with a Dia de los Muertos altar she created
Barbara Mendez with a Dia de los Muertos altar she created in honor of her parents.

When Barbara Mendez (B.A., ’95) received an invitation to host a table at the CSU Alumni Association’s most recent Serving Up Success luncheon for students, her thoughts turned to the fall of 1988 and her first dining hall experiences at Colorado State University as a freshman far from home ­and even farther from her culture.

Barbara grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and spent most holidays with family in Sonora, Mexico. “I missed out on a lot of traditional American things, like barbecues,” she remembers. She also recalls attending one of her high school’s college fairs, where she met a recruiter from CSU named Varo Maldonado.

“My high school had something like 2,000 students; maybe 70 percent black. The rest were Latino. There were almost no Anglos.” Maldonado sat at a table where he spoke to prospective students in Spanish. “That hooked me,” Barbara says. “He looked like us. He spoke the language and he was brown. And he had a lot of good things to say about CSU.”

Later during his stay in Phoenix, Maldonado held a financial aid workshop. Barbara didn’t attend because the process was unfamiliar and part of her didn’t believe she could afford CSU, even though she was a star student and a leader. But Maldonado had kept the information card Mendez had filled out at the fair. And it had her address.

“He drove to my house,” she says. “He talked to my parents in Spanish and told them I would be taken care of. And he sat there and helped fill out our financial aid forms.”

Two women wearing Lambda Theta Nu jackets.
Barbara with a fellow Lambda Theta Nu sister in Old Town, Fort Collins.

With Maldonado’s help, Barbara arrived at CSU as prepared as possible. She had a work study job and connected with other members of her community through El Centro and other student diversity offices. But she was still suffering from a bit of culture shock on the predominantly white campus, especially in her dining hall.

“Growing up, we ate a lot with our hands,” Barbara says. “I wasn’t formally taught to use a fork and knife.” Feeling self-conscious, she started to skip meals and began to lose weight. “Back then, food was served cafeteria-style.” You had to eat whatever was being served that day, and some of it seemed foreign and unappealing.

When a friend asked why she was skipping meals, she explained how she grew up eating traditional hand-held Mexican foods such as fajitas with red chili, beans, and soups, using tortillas as a scoop. One of her friends, a girl named Joni from Hawaii and the only other person of color on her floor, reacted as good friends always do: with kindness. Joni taught Barbara how to cut food and, in time, she re-gained the weight and lost the self-consciousness.

On her birthday, she repaid that kindness with own of her own. “I was with some of the girls on my floor and said, “For my birthday, I want you to eat with your hands.” Supplied with tortillas, none of them could. “The result was a sloppy mess,” she remembers. “It was my way of saying, ‘I’m not stupid. It’s actually a skill and in my culture it’s how we eat.’’’ Much later, Barbara convinced CSU’s Housing and Dining Services to introduce tortillas in dining halls campus-wide.

The Next Big Thing

Personifying the saying “Be the change you want to see,” Barbara continually sought ways to support Latina students like herself. She just needed a little nudge

Jeannie Ortega, now retired after a 32-year career at CSU, provided the push. She had just returned from a conference at Chico State University in California, where she learned about a Latina sorority that had been founded there. Barbara had a work study job in the El Centro office at the time and remembers Jeannie giving her a sticky note with the words “Lambda Theta Nu” written on it. “This is the next big thing,” Jeannie pronounced.

A First for Colorado

Barbara knew founding a sorority would help fill the need for support, but faced an uphill battle to turn the idea into reality. Thankfully, she had allies.

Barbara credits longtime El Centro director Dr. Guadalupe Salazar (who retired in 2020) for proving guidance and assistance as she recruited other founding sisters, arranged travel in rental cars to Chico State to pledge with members of the Alpha chapter, and throughout the entire process. She was also grateful to two members of the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity who escorted her and her sisters to California, a true demonstration of Latino protectiveness.

Barbara Mendez standing outside a theater in Denver
Barbara outside the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

Barbara and five other women founded the Lambda Theta Nu chapter on October 27, 1990. It was the first Latina sorority in the state of Colorado. Still involved as an alumni advisor, Barbara is proud that the Beta chapter is still going strong after paving the way for other chapters at the University of Northern Colorado and Metro State University.

“It was a struggle to find pledges in the beginning,” Barbara recalls. “We wore our letters everywhere,” to get the word out, she says. “And we took on a lot of leadership roles outside the sorority. We were in Admissions doing campus tours; we served as RA’s in residence halls.” Barbara even became president of the MEChA chapter (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), an organization supporting Chicano unity and empowerment that came out of political movements of the 1960s. The role provided a venue to navigate complex issues of intersecting identities, such as the establishment of a sorority by a marginalized group within a system created by the dominant white culture.

Barbara’s CSU experience paved the way for a career in education, student support, and building cultural awareness through art. After graduation, she lived in France for eight years and taught English in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. She earned a master’s degree in student affairs in higher education from Northern Arizona and then worked there as an academic advisor, educating first-generation students on what it means to be an alum. She has held similar jobs at CSU and CU. She’s also an artist known for building traditional Dia de los Muertos altars and displays her work in museums and libraries throughout Northern Colorado. This October, she’ll conduct a sugar skull workshop at the Loveland Museum.

Become a Member

When you join the CSU Alumni Association, you become part of something bigger – a global community of green and gold that keeps alumni connected to the University and each other. As an annual member, Barbara is making an impact on current students and future Rams through scholarships; providing support for alumni programming, outreach, and engagement across the nation; and preserving time-honored traditions that bind us together as Rams. You can make a difference too, and gain access to benefits such as exclusive invites, bookstore savings, career services, and more. Become a member today!