Before migrating to the U.S, Central American immigrants see the United States as an accepting place. But, when they arrive, they face the complete opposite. As discussed in my paper, they encounter issues such as exploitation, language barriers, and not being treated as equals. I also make clear that it is important that all ethnicities and races are recognized so that people do not feel lost with their identity or ashamed of where they came from. Overall, there should not be tension between different ethnicities because at the end of the day most migrants come to the U.S for similar issues. Moreover, many K-12 schools do not teach students about different cultures or histories outside of a U.S. perspective. College, however, such as CSUN, has increasingly become a place where Central American immigrants can find acceptance.
People who are of Central American descent oftentimes feel conflicted with their identity. Central Americans are used to identifying themselves with their home country, city, town, village, and neighborhood but when they arrive in the U.S there's suddenly a confusion of identity for them. In the U.S they are referred to as Hispanic or Latino/a which are terms they were unaccustomed to in their home countries. People always make statements such as “I thought you were Mexican” just because someone looks Hispanic. They assume that because someone is of brown complexion, they are Mexicans. These people are associating skin tones with other races which can be seen as stereotyping. People are uneducated on other cultures which is why they jump straight to the conclusion that all Hispanics/ Latinos are Mexican. Unfortunately, many younger Central American generations do not know about their cultural background.
College is the one place where students start learning about their cultural background, which is a shame because up until then, most Hispanics are being categorized into one term or group (Mexicans). Sadly, many people get used to being labeled as Mexican and eventually ignore it or they just feel ashamed of their culture. The articles “Becoming "Hispanic" in the "New South": Central American Immigrants' Racialization” by Robert A. Yarbrough, "The Many Narratives of Growing Up With Central American Roots " by Alejandra Molina, "Expressions of Maya Identity and Culture: Challenges and Success among Maya Youth" by Giovanni Battz, and "Identity Formation Among Central Americans" by Norma Chinchilla and Nora Hamilton reveal the importance of Central American culture as well as identities starting from where a person comes from because cultural values affect how someone will grow up and think or react to certain situations.
In the article “Becoming ‘Hispanic’ in the ‘New South’: Central American Immigrants' Racialization” it is stated by interviewee Jose that “White and Black think everybody is Mexican” which unfortunately has become normal for Central Americans. In many cases, people have become accustomed to being called Mexican and they eventually lie about their ethnicity. Furthermore, the article “The Many Narratives of Growing Up With Central American Roots” demonstrates that people are not educated on other countries and cultures and that people do lie about being Mexican for several reasons. In that same article Iliana Gutierez stated, “After a while, Nobody knew where [Guatemala] was and I kept saying, ‘Oh you know what, it’s better to say I’m Mexican. And so I became Mexican for a while”. For many Central Americans, it is difficult to fit in. Central Americans have to confront the pressures of assimilation not only from white U.S. culture but also from Mexican-American communities. Figueroa, an interviewee from the article “The Many Narratives of Growing Up With Central American Roots” says, “We’ve never had representation,”. In my judgment, Figueroa is saying that Central Americans do not have their image as individual Central American countries like Mexico or any other country does.
For many Central Americans, it is difficult to fit in. Central Americans have to confront the pressures of assimilation not only from white U.S. culture but also from Mexican-American communities.
According to Giovanni Batz’s article “Expressions of Maya Identity and Culture,” he states that “children of Maya have self-identified into four general categories in which indigenous identity is either retained or diminished”. (Batz 45) The first category consists of children who are not aware of their indigenous heritage because some parents may feel ashamed, no longer identify as Maya, or do not see value in teaching their children about their indigenous culture. The reason parents and older generations may be ashamed to be indigenous is because they are belittled or mimicked for being who they truly are. Maya identity is expressed through the use of traditional Maya clothing, language, and spirituality. Oftentimes challenges arise when Mayas arrive in the U.S because people discriminate against their traditional customs.
Batz explains that Sonia, who is a sixteen-year-old K’iche’ immigrated to the United States at the age of ten to be reunited with her parents. She was a participant in the sponsored Q’anjob’al language course of summer 2009. This course allowed students to learn K’iche’, Q’anjob’al, or Maya spirituality. Sonia took this course because she views language as a connection to her Maya identity, especially since she does not wear her traditional traje in the United States. Furthermore, Angela, who is a K’iche’ mother attended the course with her twelve-year-old daughter. Angela says that she did not teach her daughter about the Maya culture and language but was content when her daughter wanted to attend the course to learn K’iche’. The examples of Sonia and Angela demonstrate that sometimes parents or people of older Maya generations may feel ashamed about their Maya culture. However, there are younger generations who are curious to learn about their cultural background and want to know where their ancestral roots came from.
It is much more difficult for indigenous people to fit in than the average Hispanic, especially when they are trying to cross over to the states. The film El Norte directed by Gregory Nava is about two young Mayans from Guatemala. It shows the story of a brother and sister named Rosa and Enrique who are on a journey to leave Guatemala and attempt to escape to El Norte (the North). Their goal is to reach the U.S where they can live the “American Dream”. This film depicts the struggles faced by many people leaving their home countries from Central and South America who are trying to reach the United States. In the film, indigenous peoples dress in native clothing and speak a dialect that is different from Spanish. The indigenous peoples stay in a village that is run by rich landowners. The landowners treat them like slaves and their lives mean nothing to the landowners.
El Norte is divided into three acts. The first part of the film is called “Arturo Xuncax,” which took place in a small Guatemalan village. Arturo Xuncax is an Indian coffee picker and is the father of Enrique and Rosa. Arturo no longer wants to live under such cruel conditions, so he organizes a gathering with all the men he worked with to come up with a plan, and fight the plantation's rich landowners. One night, Arturo meets up with the men he works with and they are all massacred by military men. Enrique hears the gunfire and runs out into the darkness of the village only to find his father lynched. Enrique and Rosa understand that they will most likely be murdered if they stay in the Guatemalan village. The first part of the film displays how indigenous people face racial discrimination because of their identities. As well as other barriers such as military warfare before even arriving in the U.S.
Mayan immigrants must blend in with the Latino community to avoid receiving attention and being identified as immigrants by Mexican local authorities. The second part of the film is called “Coyote,” which is a word used to describe the men who are paid to help people cross the border. One part of the movie shows them going by bus and foot up through Mexico, which is a very harsh journey for all immigrants. When Enrique and Rosa arrive in Mexico they attempt to pass themselves off as indigenous people from Oaxaca but fail to convince one Mexican truck driver after they named the wrong destination. It is common for many immigrants to pretend to be Mexican while crossing over so that they do not get discriminated against or mistreated in Mexico. Honduran interviewee Genaro Solis from the article “Central Americans are on a Word - of Mouth Exodus to the U.S.” stated “The Americans treat us fine. The problem now is the Mexicans.” When Central Americans pass through Mexico they are frequently arrested and abused by Mexican officials. They are beaten, tortured, forced to pay for food, and sometimes even killed.
When Central Americans pass through Mexico they are frequently arrested and abused by Mexican officials. They are beaten, tortured, forced to pay for food, and sometimes even killed.
Many Central Americans living in the U.S say they are Mexican to avoid being discriminated against because of their nationality. Now going back to the film, there is a scene when Enrique and Rosa are trying to cross the border in Tijuana. They hire the first coyote they encounter but instead find themselves being robbed. Their journey to the North was filled with obstacles nearly everywhere they turned. Once Enrique and Rosa finally make it to the border, they wistfully get deported to Tijuana instead of Guatemala. This allows them to try and cross the border. Eventually, they find a coyote who is honest and helps them cross over to El Norte. The second part of the film displays how immigrants from Central America and South America feel the need to identify as Mexicans so they won't be abused or have any problems with Mexican authorities throughout their journey. It also demonstrates how coyotes can be dishonest and steal someone's money which is sometimes the only money people have to cross over. Enrique and Rosa were lucky enough to make it to the U.S because numerous people get killed on their journey, or just continuously get caught.
The final part of the film is called “El Norte'' because Rosa and Enrique finally make it to the U.S. They both discover how difficult it is to live in the U.S. without having full documentation. Enrique and Rosa try finding new jobs and a place to live in. Enrique becomes a busboy and starts to learn English. Meanwhile, at the job Rosa works in, she was almost captured by immigration which encouraged her to find a new job. Additionally, Enrique is approached by a businesswoman who offers him a better-paying job in Chicago. A worker who envied Enrique reported him to immigration and caused him to leave the restaurant he worked at. He looks for the businesswoman and takes her offer. Just when he thought everything was becoming better, Rosa became ill due to the rat bites she got when they were crossing over to the U.S. In this final part of the film Rosa says to Enrique “In our land, we have no home. They want to kill us. In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can't make a home there either. And here in the north, we are not accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique?” Rosa felt like she did not have a place of belonging which is how many people feel. This part of the film depicts how difficult life in the U.S can be for immigrants. Most people believe that once they arrive in the U.S they will be able to live the “American Dream”, but they will continue facing many more obstacles such as discrimination, language barriers, exploitation, and trouble with self-identity. Although the film El Norte was filmed in the ’80s, these are still ongoing problems that still occur to this day.
Oftentimes, college is the place where young Central Americans encounter issues of national identity and learn their national origins for the first time. There are more than four million Central Americans that reside in the United States and even then there is a lack of resources in most schools to support Central American Culture. Students need to know about their cultural background because this will help them find who they are and what their ancestors were like or what they may have gone through. Norma Stotltz Chinchilla and Nora Hamilton, authors of the “Identity Formation Among Central Americans” have mentioned in their article that professors and instructors began to introduce courses on Central America and associate information and analysis on Central America into their courses in the ’80s.
Throughout the article, numerous student examples are shown, but one student caught my attention. Susan was born in El Salvador and came to Los Angeles with her mother at the age of eight. Susan’s school years were difficult because she was unable to speak English which caused her to repeat the third grade. Students at her school would constantly make fun of her when she was unable to understand what they were saying or the games they would play. Eventually, this led her to get involved in various fights. As Susan grew up, she became involved with members of a gang in West Hollywood because the gang gave her a sense of belonging. Susan eventually became driven away by all the violence and funerals that she was constantly attending. At the age of 15, she was taken out of school and was sent back to El Salvador to live with her grandmother who believed she needed to learn how to cook, sew, and marry a nice man in the military, which would be “safer” in terms of job security.
Susan returned to the United States at age 17 and went to California State University at Northridge, but eventually dropped out two years later. Luckily Susan went back to community college and then returned to CSUN. During this time she was working at the Children’s Hospital and was working on the board of “Girls and Gangs” which is a non-profit organization that works with young women in the juvenile justice system. Susan accomplished getting her B.S. degree in 2004. Four years later Susan received her Master’s degree in Public Health at California State University Northridge. Susan is the founder and first president of the Central American Studies Alumni Society (CASAS) at CSUN. She organized annual conferences, brought students to campus, and attempted to recruit students to the Central American Studies program.
This university’s campus has the largest combination of Central American students in Southern California. The California State University of Northridge was the first to establish a program in the country that offers a minor in Central American studies and is followed by a research center focusing on studies of both Central America and of Central Americans in the U.S. Susan who constantly was going back and forth between El Salvador and the U.S felt like she did not fit in anywhere because of her true identity. It was not until college that she found who she is and felt proud of her nationality. Susan knew that many other young people felt exactly how she did at one point which is why she founded the Central American Studies Alumni Society (CASAS). She founded that program so that students who attended CSUN would have an opportunity to learn about their cultural background, and even if they are not Central American she wanted students to have a chance to learn about new cultures.
During an interview with Britney Larios, a student at Los Angeles Mission College who is of Guatemalan descent, she mentioned that she no longer made a fuss when people confused her for being Mexican. She stated “It doesn’t bother me anymore, I’ve kind of gotten used to everyone thinking I’m Mexican. But, before I would get angry and go off on people. I would raise my voice at anyone who thought I was Mexican and would ask them, “Why does everyone who looks Hispanic have to be Mexican?” Donna Calzada, Britney’s interviewer who is a good friend of Britney's, though she was also Mexican. When she found out Britney was Guatemalan she did apologize for assuming she was Mexican. Before Donna took the course of Central American Studies 115 she did not bother to ask where someone was from and jumped to the conclusion that anyone Hispanic would be Mexican. This was very small-minded of her. After Donna read one of the first articles in her Central American Studies class called “Visibly Hidden: Language, Culture and Identity of Central Americans in Los Angeles” by Magaly Lavadenz, she started understanding why it would bother Central Americans when they are assumed to be Mexican. She now tries to teach and explain to her family and friends why we shouldn’t assume someone's ethnicity based on what they look like. She also tries to explain to her family and her friends how there should not be tension between Mexicans and Central Americans because at the end of the day most migrants come to the U.S for similar issues.
In another interview with Moises Torres, a senior at East Valley Senior High who is half Mexican and half Salvadoran said that as a child he only found pride in being Mexican because he saw that being Salvadoran was frowned upon. Torres stated “I remember when Mexico and El Salvador would play soccer, my go-to team was always Mexico! It was never El Salvador because I saw that everyone would always go for Mexico so I would too.” As he grew up he has learned to take pride in his Salvadoran roots. When people ask Torres for his race, he says that the first ethnicity he brings up now is being Salvadoran. Sadly, this is the reality for many children. It may seem like children are clueless but they are smart and observe and listen to everything around them. Children of Central American descent often hide the fact that they are Central American because they see that other Central Americans are made fun of for how they speak, are discriminated against, and do not want to go through any of that because in a sense it is bullying.
The next interview was with Kevin Ventura, a student at Los Angeles Valley College of Salvadoran descent who says that he does not get offended when people assume he is Mexican. Ventura stated “I like the Mexican Culture so basically I’m Mexican too. I have very few Salvi friends, most of my friends are Mexicans which is why I consider myself Mexican.” Ventura humorously added, “I also go to Banda nights and enjoy them.” While some people may feel insulted or offended when others assume they are Mexican others do not because they do not think it is important enough to make a huge deal out of it. Moreover, Ventura claimed “ I find it the same... Salvi or Mexican, we’re all from Latin America and speak Spanish. I don’t get the reason why people get mad.” Adilman Flores who came to the U.S at the age of 11 is a student at UC Berkeley and shared similar thoughts as Kevin Ventura.
Flores stated “I don't take much importance or offense on it because it is likely that most people do not know the nuances in Latin American Culture. It is really difficult for me to get offended, and minor situations like those are insignificant to me. Everyone has the right to get offended. It all comes down to how sensitive a person may be and how important it is for their nationality to be recognized. However, it is perhaps better to get offended and react calmly because doing so can lead to the other person being corrected, which is a good thing because it leads to change.” Flores made a huge point when he stated that most people don't know about the nuances of Latin American Culture. Most people only know about Mexico because of Cinco de Mayo, because it is our neighboring country, and because of its commonly known foods. Many schools do not teach students about different cultures and their histories. Instead, they only teach U.S history which is why students know little to no knowledge of other cultures.
Even though some Central Americans may feel ashamed of their culture, there is still a large number of young Central Americans who show much more pride nowadays and are open to learning about their ancestors and roots, and hopefully, they will never forget about their roots. Some young Central Americans are used to recognizing themselves as Latino/a or Hispanic, but once they start learning about their cultures they most likely start to identify themselves based on where their parents are from. All ethnicities must be recognized so that people do not feel lost or ashamed of where they came from and who they are. Elementary schools, Middle schools, and High Schools should consider teaching about other cultures to get a better understanding of where students come from. Besides, it wouldn't hurt learning about new cultures and it can turn out to be very interesting. Even if some Central Americans do become offended when they are called Mexicans, they should correct the person and educate them in by explaining that being Mexican is not the only Latin American nationality.
Batz, Giovanni. "Expressions of Maya Identity and Culture: Challenges and Success among Maya Youth." lanic.utexas.edu, U of Texas, 2010
Chinchilla, Norma Stotltz, and Nora Nora Hamilton. "Identity Formation Among Central Americans." USC Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigration Integration, Nov. 2013, pp. 9-11.
El Norte. Directed by Gregory Nava, 1983.
Flores, Adilman. Interview. Conducted by Donna Calzada, Nov. 2020.
Larios, Britney, et al. Interview. Conducted by Donna Calzada, Nov. 2020.
Molina, Alejandra. "The Many Narratives of Growing UpWith Central American Roots." Next City, 29 May 2018.
Torres, Moises. Interview. Conducted by Donna Calzada, Nov. 2020.
Ventura, Kevin. Interview. Conducted by Donna Calzada, Nov. 2020.
Yarbrough, Robert A. "Becoming 'Hispanic' in the 'New South': Central American Immigrants' Racialization." GeoJournal, vol. 75, 2010, pp. 249-60.