Not Mexican: Central American students forge own identity

Daily Sundial

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Like the millions that fled El Salvador during its civil war, Vanessa Guerrero, who was 5 years old when her family left in 1989, came to America to flee the violence that would eventually claim more than 80,000 lives between 1980 and 1994.

And like many of those war refugees, Guerrero and her mother’s journey would bring them to Los Angeles with nothing more than a couple of suitcases.

With hardly any memories or knowledge about her country’s history or customs, Guerrero said until last summer when she returned to El Salvador for the first time since her family fled, she had to rely on her mother’s tales to learn about her native country.

“In a way I did feel like I belonged,” said the junior international business major. “Yet, in a way because I was raised here, I didn’t feel like I belonged.”

Guerrero, who plans to minor in Central American studies, said that through the Central American Studies Program she is learning about the rituals and customs of the cities and rural areas of her native El Salvador. She also works twice a week in the program’s office.

CASP, established at CSUN in August of 2000, offers Central American Studies as a minor and is the only program of its kind in the country, said Beatriz Cortez, program coordinator. Cortez said that besides having a large concentration of Central Americans living in the surrounding region, there were other factors that made CSUN the right place for such a program.

“This is a campus with a history of activism and community involvement,” Cortez said. “It’s especially important for the young Central American kids to have a space where they can explore, understand and redefine their identity. They are often welcome in the Mexican American community, but they felt that that’s not who they are.”

Central America is comprised of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador.

Cortez said there are nearly 500 students enrolled in the 16 courses that CASP offers each semester and that since the inauguration of the program, there has been at least 30 students who received the minor. CASP has two full- and five part-time faculty members and publishes a compilation of student research papers every year.

She said there are more than 2,500 Central American students on campus, but that it is difficult to get an accurate figure because the university’s questionnaire defines Central Americans vaguely. Nevertheless, Cortez is happy with the growth of the program and the support it has received from faculty, staff and administrators.

In the CASP office, between running off copies and tracking down a bandage for a professor’s paper cut, Guerrero peruses online editions of newspapers from all over Central America.

As treasurer of CSUN’s Central American United Students Association, Guerrero said reading various news sources is her only option to know what is happening throughout Central America and keep all other CAUSA members updated on important issues.

As part of the Chicano/a Studies Department, the CASP office is located at the southeast corner of the Jerome Richfield Hall in room 102, where many people walking to and from class will often poke their heads in the open door.

“Mostly half of my job is to give directions,” said CSUN student Josue Guajan, who also works in the CASP office twice a week.

After he steers a lost student toward the Student Services Building using a campus map pinned to the wall adjacent to the door, Guajan, a sophomore computer engineering major, returns to reading an online edition of a newspaper from Guatemala.

Guajan said he watches local Spanish-language television channels for sports, but to find news sources pertaining to Central American issues, he turns to cable or DirecTV.

“I do tune into Telemundo, but most of the news and the content is from Mexico,” Guajan said. “It’s not that I’m against (Mexico).”

Guajan said he would like to see more awareness for an important Central American holiday.

“Central American Independence Day is Sept. 15, but everyone is always concentrating on Mexican Independence (on Sept. 16),” Guajan said.

Guajan was born in Chicago but moved to Guatemala with his father, two brothers and a sister at a young age, only to return to the United States and eventually graduate from James Monroe High School in Van Nuys.

“We came without anything,” Guajan said. “In Guatemala, we had a house we left behind. But I always wanted to go to a university in the United States. Something my dad has put in my brain is how important studying and school is.”

Guajan said the CASP minor has moved the focus of the history of the Americas beyond just studying Mexico.

Cortez, the program coordinator, said the more than two million Central Americans living in the Los Angeles area provide the program with plenty of opportunities for field experience, research and policy projects.

“Besides academic excellence, we are also committed to being involved with the community,” Cortez said. “Even though we are one of the smallest programs, we have had a lot of visibility.”

To that end CASP, the Central American Research and Policy Institute and the Central American Resource Center are devoting a significant amount of time and effort to confront the major issues affecting Central Americans here and in their respective countries.

“In Central America the most dramatic situations have happened in rural areas, which has contributed to the situation’s invisibility,” Cortez said.

“These people are living under conditions that are unknown to most people.”

Cortez said an ongoing research project known as the “Virtual Memory Archive” has documented the lives of the region’s Central Americans through photographs.

“Part of it is not only giving back acquired knowledge, but also that here is so much to learn about what is going on in the daily lives of the community,” Cortez said.

Julio Morales can be reached at julio.morales.605@csun.edu.