The roots of Phi Iota Alpha were implanted at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, NY in 1898. A group of Latin American students organized the Union Hispano Americana as a cultural and intellectual secret society based on the ideology of Pan-Americanism. The immediate goals of the UHA were to provide a cultural environment for students of Latin America and Spain. The UHA was the first association of Latin American students ever founded in the United States. The ideals and operations of the UHA expanded to several colleges and universities in the United States. However, due to the secrecy imposed upon its members, not many records were kept. The expansion and growth of the UHA was based on compromise and the ultimate need of similar organizations to unify and become more powerful.
In the northeastern part of the United States, a group of Latin American students decided to organize a cultural and intellectual fraternity, consequently, Pi Delta Phi fraternity was founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1916. Shortly after its foundation, Pi Delta Phi initiated a search to expand to other colleges and universities when they realized the existence of other similar organizations. Pi Delta Phi also initiated a search throughout other American universities for other fraternities with similar goals.
First, Pi Delta Phi established communication with Phi Lambda Alpha Fraternity, which had been recently founded in 1919 at the University of Southern California, Berkeley. After some communication, these two organizations realized the existence of the strong non-Greek letter secret society of Union Hispano Americana, and as a result of intensive correspondence and various interviews, the three organizations merged. In their merger agreement, the three organizations adopted the name of Phi Lambda Alpha Fraternity, with the distinctive emblem of Pi Delta Phi and the constitution, goals, and motto of the UHA. This new union was formalized in June 1921, in the city of New York.
Meanwhile, in the southern part of the U.S. another similar organization was under development. Sigma Iota Fraternity, a mostly social/cultural organization, was founded in 1904 at Louisiana State University. Between 1904 and 1925, Sigma Iota expanded very rapidly and thereby became the first international fraternity of Latin American students. By 1928, the international organization Sigma Iota had lost many of its chapters and therefore sought to stabilize its operations by consolidating its chapters in the United States with a more stationary and well-rooted organization.
In December of 1931, the most profound historical event in the history of Latino fraternities took place in Troy, NY. Delegates from Phi Lambda Alpha Fraternity and Sigma Iota Fraternity assembled with the objective of forming a strong and extensive Fraternity to address the needs of Latin Americans in universities in the U.S. By 1921, Phi Lambda Alpha was in search of expanding throughout the United States the old ideology of Pan-Americanism. Sigma Iota Fraternity was in search of revitalizing some of its defunct chapters and expansion opportunities. Thus both organizations complemented each other and the arduous work towards the creation of the Fraternity we now know as Phi Iota Alpha was initiated.
On December 26, 1931, the first day of a three-day convention, Phi Iota Alpha was born as both groups agreed on the merger contract to unify under one name, one banner, one organization and one ideal. The next day of business was dedicated to preparing the details of revising the constitution, working on the creation of a shield to represent the newly formed national Latino brotherhood, and internal rules and regulations documents. On December 28th, by the end of the three-day convention, most of the merger was completed. Now the last step in the merger was the ratification of some of the chapters of Sigma Iota that were not represented at the convention.
Since that historical unification, Phi Iota Alpha expanded nationally as well as internationally. At the international level, the Fraternity sponsored the 1932 convention in the city of New York with the purpose of forming the Union Latino Americana (ULA). The ULA was a fundamental pact that organized Latin America into 22 zones; each of the 21 countries constituted a zone and Phi Iota Alpha represented the 22nd zone in the United States. Under the ULA, merely the structural design of Pan-Americanism, all the zones were bonded by the same constitution and internal rules and regulations. This union proved efficient in setting forth the ideology of Pan-Americanism since most of the zones actively and diligently participated in the name of the ideals. By 1937, the ULA had several well-established and functional zones including: Phi Kappa Alpha in Cuba, Phi Sigma Alpha in Puerto Rico and Phi Tau Alpha in Mexico. In September of 1939, the Phi Sigma Alpha zone decided to separate from the ULA and eventually, merged with Sigma Delta Alpha to form Phi Sigma Alpha Fraternity of Puerto Rico.
It was not until 1945, the outbreak of World War II, that the expansion rate was significantly reduced for Phi Iota Alpha in the U.S. By 1951, the Fraternity, feeling the effect the War was having on society and inversely on its expansion, drafted and implemented a new expansion strategy, hence the decade of the 1950's was a period of positive internal growth for the Fraternity. In the early 1950's, Phi Iota Alpha eradicated any residue of its political agenda. With only a few chapters, the Fraternity continued to pursue its vivid mission by implementing the "Universidad Ideologica."
The 1960's proved to be very challenging years for Phi Iota Alpha and all Latinos in general. The effects of a World War II, the Vietnam War, and the "Me" generation resulted in an anti-institutional atmosphere amongst many college students. In addition, this drastically reduced the influx of Latin American students into American universities which hindered potential members. As a result, by 1968, after many years of struggling to adapt to its time, the only active undergraduate chapter at RPI closed the doors of their chapter house. By 1973, the last active Secretary General graduated from RPI, taking with him the Fraternity's official documents and archives. From 1973 to 1983, the Fraternity witnessed a period of inactivity at the undergraduate level. Some efforts were made to re-establish Phi Iota Alpha but these efforts did not bear any fruit. Throughout this period, brothers continued to maintain communication, as well as to accomplishing the mission of the organization. The history, ideals and goals of the Fraternity never diminished. It simply did not have active undergraduate members to cultivate them. Phi Iota Alpha continued to exist within the hearts of many graduate members as they continued to develop their professional lives mostly in Latin American countries and in the United States.
In 1984, a group of determined young men at RPI, upon learning about the Latino empowerment and culture that once existed on their campus, took the challenge of reviving the spirit of Phi Iota Alpha. In doing so, these courageous young men became the new generation of Phi Iota Alpha. Briefly after the re-establishment of the Fraternity, in an extraordinary session, the last Secretary General instituted the members of the RPI chapter as the Alpha Chapter. In the 1980's the Fraternity dedicated its efforts to rebuilding the organizational infrastructure and to expand to several universities in New York State. By 1991, Phi Iota Alpha had chartered six chapters that represented all areas of New York State.