At a young age, Lillian Casillas-Origel emigrated from Mexico to Northwest Indiana with her family and spent her youth in Hammond and Gary during the 1970s and 1980s before heading off to college at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Casillas-Origel honors her Latina heritage daily by helping hundreds of Latino and non-Latino students at the Indiana University Bloomington campus to stay focused on their college education and succeed in her role as director of La Casa, the Indiana University Latino Cultural Center at IU Bloomington.
On Saturday, she will receive the IU Latino Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award during La Casa’s 40th anniversary banquet at the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center in Bloomington to honor her lifetime of advocacy for social change.
“Anybody who ever works in the area of trying to make social change and in advocacy will tell you that you don’t often see immediate results,” said Casillas-Origel.
“La Casa’s success cannot be attributed to any one person,” she said. “It is due to the many people who have come through the door.”
Casillas-Origel’s nearly 30-year association with IU Bloomington includes obtaining her bachelor of arts degree in Spanish in 1989 and a master of science in education degree in 1998.
Alice Jordan-Miles, president of the IU Latino Alumni Association, said Casillas-Origel constantly supports and is determined to help others, just as she was once helped.
“Lilly is a catalyst to change and a catalyst to improving the lives of students,” said Jordan-Miles.
“In many cases, she was the key reason why a person stayed at IU, stayed on to graduate and went onto postgraduate work as well,” Jordan-Miles said.
That dedication to helping others, especially Latino students, seems to stem from Casillas-Origel’s own life’s journey as a Mexican immigrant.
That journey took many, sometimes negative, turns, according to an interview Casillas-Origel did with a public TV station in Nashville, Tenn., in March 2012, just three months after becoming a U.S. citizen on Dec. 1, 2011.
It was her third time attempting to become an American citizen, after almost 40 years living in the U.S. The first two times she tried to become a naturalized citizen were terrible experiences, Casillas-Origel told IU alumnus Shameka Kelly during that TV interview.
“Both times I was treated horribly in the office of immigration,” Casillas-Origel recalled.
“You were yelled at. It was something where it was humiliating to me and the people that were there, and I walked out. I walked out because I felt like I don’t want to be of a country that sees me like this.
"I work here, I pay my taxes, I contribute to the education of others. I try to improve and make this country better.”
In a land founded by immigrants, there’s still a stigma about being an immigrant in America, she said in the interview.
“They don’t realize that people are capable of being loyal to the United States, that we don’t see ourselves separate from this country,” Casillas-Origel said.
“While, yes, I am very much Mexican, it does not take away from me feeling a loyalty or feeling connected or feeling responsible ... all of those things for this country,” she said. “I have an investment into this country just as the country has an investment in me.”
As director of La Casa, Casillas-Origel supports for Latino students, faculty and staff at IU. She is responsible for programming that contributes to the educational, cultural and social enrichment of all students, faculty and staff.
She works closely with Latino students in all aspects of campus life, helping Latino students find a welcoming environment and positive experience while at IU.