This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Hector Callejas. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many first-generation Latinx students, our traditions and culture are what connect us to our family’s homeland. Reaffirming that cultural identity can be difficult because we don’t have the personal experiences of growing up in those countries.
When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley in 2014, I got the opportunity to travel to El Salvador, the country my mother emigrated from, to research Indigenous identities and politics.
For two months, I lived with a leader from an Indigenous organization based in a small town in the countryside. I got to learn more about the kind of activism that the organization was doing for the local Indigenous community, as well as the kind of activism they organized around with policymakers in the capital city of San Salvador.
In many Latin American countries, national governments have given formal recognition to the existence of Indigenous people as members of the modern nation-state. Usually, that is codified in law and operationalized in policy around citizenship rights and collective land rights.
This wasn’t quite what I saw in El Salvador, where in the past decade, national governments have recognized citizenship rights — but not collective land rights — for Indigenous peoples.
That research became the focus of my undergrad thesis and empowered me to graduate with honors in ethnic studies.
Now, as a Ph.D. candidate, my dissertation continues to be motivated by my time spent in El Salvador. More importantly, that experience continues to deepen my desire to learn more about my Salvadoran heritage.
As I complete the fifth and final chapter of my dissertation, a general takeaway that people should know is that in El Salvador, Indigenous identities and politics are always about land, even if collective land rights aren’t necessarily on the official political agenda.
More broadly, whenever we’re talking about Indigenous identity as part of national heritage, national culture and tradition of Latinx families, the bigger picture is still about land and the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples.
This is one of the many important lessons from Native American and Indigenous studies, but it is not something that we Latinx students often talk about when we explore our identities and cultures.
On an individual level, particularly in the United States, Latinx folks are often grouped together as one homogenous culture or ethnicity when, in fact, we have very nuanced identities that are unique and different from one another.
But those distinctions can be found through research and understanding each other’s lived experiences. As a Berkeley student, I have been able to take a wider and deeper look at Indigenous identity and politics in El Salvador and, in turn, my own Salvadoran heritage.
It was not always easy for me to identify with those roots.
As the oldest of three siblings, I was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Sacramento, California.
Both of my parents are from Central America — my mom from El Salvador and my dad from Guatemala. They immigrated to Oakland in the early 1980s. Soon after, they met at and got married.
In our house, my mom raised us to be Salvi (slang for Salvadoran), while my father didn’t really give us much of a sense of what Guatemalan culture was, at least not in the same way that my mom did.
I remember moments when my grandma prepared Salvi dishes for us at home, like quesadillas — which is a savory dessert cake made from a salty hard cheese— and pastelitos de res, a Salvi empanada. The aroma would fill the air. We also listened to a lot of tropical music, which further strengthened our sense of connection to my mother’s homeland.
But growing up, my siblings and I struggled to fit in with our surrounding community, which was predominately Mexican immigrants or Mexican Americans.
We assimilated to their culture and developed a sense of affinity for their traditions, which, in some ways, were similar to our Salvi traditions. But I still felt somewhat disconnected. This isolation created a desire in me to learn more about my Salvadoran heritage through research in higher education.
But after graduating from high school, navigating how to go to college was challenging. My parents instilled in me the idea that getting a bachelor’s degree would open doors and give us a better life. No one in my immediate family had gone to college, though, and neither of my parents had degrees in higher education.
I got into places like Sacramento State and UC Davis but ended up attending a local community college to save money. I transferred to Berkeley in 2011, and the transition to a new city, campus and community was terrible. I remember calling my mom after my first semester on campus, crying and saying “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I just felt overwhelmed by the sense of isolation and lack of direction I was experiencing.
It felt like Berkeley was an unfamiliar ocean — and I had to figure out how to swim all on my own…”
I intended to major in Latin American studies because I wanted to contextualize my family’s story within broader understandings of Central American histories, peoples and politics. But I didn’t know what courses would be best for me, or what professors would peak my interests.
It felt like Berkeley was an unfamiliar ocean — and I had to figure out how to swim all on my own in order to find academic success. It was traumatic for me.
The strong sense of desire to learn more about my Salvadoran identity really pushed me to find community through student groups on campus where I belonged.
I got involved with the Mixed Student Union, dedicated to people of multiracial heritage. I also volunteered at a local elementary school with Pilipino Academic Student Services, a group I felt affinity to because I have cousins with Filipino heritage. I’m queer, so naturally I gravitated to what was then called the Queer Straight Alliance, and I joined the Salvadorian student group at Berkeley as well (the Berkeley chapter of the Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios).
I also began living in the Berkeley Student Cooperative which provided me with a comfortable social environment at home.
I made friends in these spaces where I felt like I belonged — where I felt validated and supported.
When I switched majors to ethnic studies, I began to feel like Berkeley did have the courses and faculty that affirmed my identity as a first-generation, low-income Salvadoran student. I had more peers that shared my interests and lived experiences of marginalization and exclusion, and the challenges that come with that.
This feeling of support has been crucial in creating an environment where I could continue to explore my research interests. And that is the reason I have continued my studies here at Berkeley.
Upon graduation this spring, I want to teach at the university level. And in this way, I hope to contribute to creating an institutional environment centered on community that helps students explore their research interests based on their own identities.
At the end of the day, despite all the trials and tribulations we go through as Latinx students, it’s our communities and identities that ground us. And, like Berkeley did for me, it is important for us to find the people and spaces that you feel affirm your identity and help you pursue your research.
I want to share this insight with future students.