- Adding “Central American” to the Chicana and Chicano studies department name recognizes students and faculty from a region whose individual cultures are often overlooked.
- UCLA scholars have long focused on expanding knowledge of cultural production, identity and indigeneity about Central America and its people.
- A minor in Central American studies is in the works.
Though named after a renowned labor leader of Mexican American heritage, the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies has been, since its founding in 1993, a diverse ideological container that allows vital scholarship centered on many different perspectives and nationalities to thrive.
So as the 2019–2020 school year began in July, leaders in the department finalized a broadly supported plan to add “Central American” to the official name. And thus, the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano and Central American Studies was born. Far more than an internal name change, it’s a move that reflects the department’s already established approach to embrace research, teaching, advocacy and lived experiences that countervail the narratives of criminality, victimhood and deportation that persist about people from Central America.
“We need to lead the way nationally. And hopefully through that effort, we will open bridges and spaces where we learn more about each other,” said Leisy Abrego, the new department chair. Abrego is a member of the first large wave of Salvadoran immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. She has been teaching courses about Central American politics and migration and immigrant experiences at UCLA for years.
“The demand was for a department name that reflected the work that we have been doing for some time,” she said. “So adding ‘Central American’ is a recognition of that, and an acknowledgement of our Central American students and colleagues.”
Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Central American migrants in the country, many of them second- or third-generation American citizens who have been navigating multiple identities and cultures in the city since the 1970s when Central American migration to the United States began expanding.
The work of re-framing perceptions of Central America has become increasingly important over the last several years, largely in the wake of increased migration from the region, particularly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as migrants flee war, privation and violence — often the result of U.S. foreign policies. This migration has been met with increasingly strident and cruel immigration policies at the U.S.–Mexico border.
At UCLA the desire to shine a different kind of light on Central America has also resulted in the recent formation of community-building student group UNICA de UCLA (Union Centroamericana) and the graduate-student support group, Central American Isthmus Graduate Association, known as CAIGA.
Karina Alma has been part of the that progress, having joined UCLA as a lecturer in 2013. She became an assistant professor in 2019 and teaches a wide range of Latino, Chicano and Central American topics for the department.
“A move like this brings visibility, it brings presence, which also helps counter sensationalist stereotypes,” she said. “When I teach, I let my students know I am a Salvadoran woman, that I still consider myself an immigrant woman, though I was born and raised in Pico-Union in the inner city of L.A. That transparency and perspective is important.”
Embracing Central American studies means understanding intersecting communities, Alma said.
“Our communities intersect in the very bodies of our students,” she pointed out. “Many of our students are actually Salvadoran and Mexican, Honduran and Chicano. It’s about more than just what’s there in the written text we study. It’s about how we live our lives and how we treat one another.”
In the past, Central American scholarly topics have been exoticized or hyperfocused on politics and war, primarily from the gaze of American or European writers, she said.
“Often students are taught that Central America is a space devoid of knowledge production, but we have a long history of cultural production, of literary production, of knowledge, philosophy and ideas,” said Alma, whose expertise is on Central American literature and cultural production. Alma makes it a point to introduce Central American authors from the diaspora to UCLA students.
Layered within the those intersecting communities is the concept of indigeneity and the dual identities carried by many people from Central America, especially Guatemala, where the population is still majority Indigenous.
Floridalma Boj Lopez, who migrated from Guatemala to Los Angeles when she was 2 years old joined the department as an assistant professor in July and is teaching a course this fall focused on the topic of indigeneity and the role it plays as Central American migrants move through transnational spaces.
As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz taking courses in Latin American and Central American Studies, Boj Lopez often thought about how she might center and approach Central American studies differently from her position as a member of the community.
“It’s important to have students exposed to people who come from these particular communities, but also who remain committed to the future of those communities,” Boj Lopez said. “That’s often how I articulate what it means for me to be Maya and to be an academic — is that I’m talking about a group of people whose future and my future are intertwined.”
Thinking about these multiple identities and how they transcend borders and labels is nuanced.
“But if you go at a pace that makes sense, but also remain open to challenging what students think, even those who are not indigenous respond really well,” Boj Lopez said. “They learn about themselves and they learn about what it means to be an ally to indigenous migrants.”
Boj Lopez said she is eager to see the pipeline of Central American academics continue to expand. And she chose to come to UCLA because she wanted to stay in the city she loves and be part of the campus’s social justice efforts.
Former department chair Eric Avila said there are also plans to also launch a Central American studies minor.
“As public university in one of the largest cities in the world, we felt our department had an obligation to more faithfully represent the diverse Latino communities of L.A.,” Avila said. “We believe our department is the perfect place to bring a focus to Central American history, identity and culture.”
This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.