In the ProPublica audio that went viral last year of crying children who were separated from their parents at the border, their tiny voices spoke a Central American vernacular of Spanish. In the iconic photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon, the family that was running from tear gas was fleeing Honduras. In another photo that quickly spread was the image of a father and daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande; they had left El Salvador for a better life. And most of the migrant children who have died at the border in the past year were indigenous from Guatemala.
I don’t ever recall this level of media visibility for Central Americans in my life. Still, Americans don’t really know who we are and why we’re coming here, even though we’ve been doing so for decades.
I was born in the late ’80s to a household in which my parents and older siblings were refugees from El Salvador’s civil war. For much of my young life, I had no context for what that conflict meant to us. I did, however, remember each time it was mentioned in popular culture, for it is a country so small from a region that is so peripheral. There’s the time a cartoon guerrilla rebel yelled “Woo El Salvador” to a singing Homer Simpson. There was the time when I found out the maid from “Will & Grace,” Rosario Salazar, was from El Salvador. I could never forget when National Geographic sensationalized MS-13 and dubbed it the “World’s Most Dangerous Gang.” That was the first occasion that I heard anything from El Salvador in the superlative, that Salvadorans were the world’s “most” at something. Outside of our communities, this is what the larger American culture reflected back at us, one-dimensional depictions of guerrillas, maids and gang members.
Fast forward to college. Higher education is often uncharted territory for many first-generation Central Americans. People like my parents — immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — have the lowest educational attainment of all immigrant groups in the United States. When I saw a Central American studies course titled “Central Americans in the United States,” I quickly signed up. It was a once-a-year offering under the Chicano studies department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. My professor was Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, a Salvadoran immigrant himself. It was possibly the single most important classroom experience I’ve ever had. He started the first session with, “If you’re Central American, raise your hand.” Mine and a couple of other hands went up.
I raised my hand for everything. For themes like immigration, conflict and displacement, there was a family anecdote I could pair it with:
- “My mother barricaded herself in an ice cream shop when tanks rolled in after Archbishop (now saint) Oscar Romero’s assassination.”
- “My father was caught and deported by Mexican authorities in Tijuana and sent back to war.”
Non-Central American students would follow me to my dorm room and the dining halls to pick my brain for essay fodder. I didn’t realize the full value in my family’s life experience and my peoples’ history until this class. I wondered whether this was the validation my white American peers felt in my other classes. As the class went on, Ramírez asked again, “If you’re Central American, raise your hand.” A lot more hands went up. I imagine some of my peers started shaking the stigma of being Central American and felt more empowered to identify themselves.
I’m very grateful for the interethnic solidarity found in Chicano studies that made space for us. To me, the one Central American course I took really mattered. It put me on a trajectory to report on the region as a journalist. It felt like a natural progression when last month my sister campus of UCLA voted 15 to 1 to add Central American studies to the name of the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies. Los Angeles has the biggest population of Salvadorans in the country. Chicano and Mexican American communities in Southern California are where my family made their refuge, and some would say we as Central Americans even culturally assimilate to this group.
After the decision, an op-ed started making the rounds on #CentralAmericanTwitter. In it, the author argues that the addition of Central American studies is an erasure of the Chicano and Mexican American experience.
Leisy Abrego, a professor at the UCLA department and a Salvadoran immigrant herself, tweeted: “If recognizing our work alongside the work of the Chicanx community is erasure, what would you call having us continue to do work without recognition?”
This also followed the decision by national student organization MEChA, formerly known as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, to remove “Chicanx” from its name. The organization, which was founded in the 1960s, said the move was a bid toward inclusion of other Latin American-descended students. These efforts to make space for us at universities are happening at a time when Central Americans are facing high levels of displacement, detention and violence.
Immigration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to the United States is outpacing growth from elsewhere. Collectively, migrants from these three countries make up the bulk of arrests at the border. The six children who have died in Border Patrol custody are from Central America: one from El Salvador and five indigenous Maya from Guatemala.
It’s time American universities, and the country as a whole, had a moral dialogue around Central America. It goes beyond this particular presidential administration, too. The immigration crisis stemming from instability in the region sits on decades of U.S. intervention: Reagan-funded wars (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala), coup d’états (Honduras, Guatemala) and Clinton-era mass deportation policies that exported MS-13 and similar gangs to Central America. There’s a much more complicated history between Central America and the United States than what we’re taught in schools, which is little if anything at all.
So, when the kids at the border are freed from their cages, it’s our duty to have more than Hollywood depictions of maids, guerrillas and gangs looking back at them. That when they grow up and deal with their trauma, they’ll have a body of work to look to and validate their experiences. They deserve to know about the resilience of our people, how we fought back against oppression, and how we’ve carved out our survival in this country.