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Central American Studies gains popularity on California campuses

When East Los Angeles Community College announced its new Central American Studies program in August, it represented a win for students and faculty in the field who say they have long been fighting for space and respect in higher education. 

Now, those scholars are hoping to capitalize on the current momentum for ethnic studies across the state to further expand their field of study.

“Since the summer of 2020, we have a lot of people talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion. There was almost a renewed invigoration of developing ethnic studies,” said Jocelyn Duarte, a professor of Central American Studies at East Los Angeles College and Cal State University Northridge. “We were already ahead of the curve. We’ve been fighting for this. Now, it’s time to amplify the conversation.” 

There are about 7 million people in the U.S. who were either born in Central America or have Central American ancestry, according to the Migration Policy Institute — and a quarter of them live in California. The state is home to three of the nation’s 10 metropolitan areas with the highest concentration of Central American immigrants: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Riverside. 

But for a long time, Central American Studies scholars say, the community was ignored within academia – or worse, stereotyped. 

“I developed (my classes) really thinking about: How is it that Central Americans have been typified in the United States? It’s very sensationalist, and just looking at us as if we are a people without history, without culture, without knowledge production,” said UCLA Professor Karina Alma, who has developed three Central American Studies courses for her department. 

East Los Angeles College’s new two-year program offers students the opportunity to pursue an associate of arts degree in Central American Studies, which will be official in Spring 2023. The first program of its kind in California, it is housed within the college’s Chicano/a Studies department and offers five courses for credits that will transfer to a University of California or California State University campus. 

Part of the idea is to fortify students’ knowledge of Latin American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Central American Studies before they transfer to a four-year university, creating a pipeline to universities such as Cal State Northridge, the only one in California to have a department dedicated to Central American and Transborder Studies. 

Iris Ramirez, 26, is in a doctorate program at UCLA for Chicano/a and Central American Studies. “I find myself really excited to do this PhD and to share thoughts and ideas that I’ve had for a long time, but wasn’t sure if it was worth sharing,” said Ramirez, who is Salvadoran. “I’m learning in this space that we are all very like-minded.” Photo by Pablo Unzueta for CalMatters

“It was definitely a great experience to be in a campus like CSUN, where you have such an appreciation for ethnic studies and it’s not looked upon as just a requirement,” said Duarte, who earned her bachelor’s degree there. “When I graduated from (CSUN’s) program, I understood the importance of expanding Central American Studies beyond CSUN. It all starts with one course, but there has to be a bigger commitment.” 

Duarte said she hopes the new program will soon be mirrored at other colleges within the Los Angeles Community College District, which houses East Los Angeles College and eight other campuses. Nearly 14,000 students who identified as Central American were enrolled in the district as of fall 2021.

“Promoting these programs throughout the district… typically occurs among faculty, who have purview over curriculum,” said Daniel Keller, the district’s dean of Curriculum and Instructional Support Services. “I have no doubt East will make a success of their new program and will generate much interest at their sister campuses, both in and outside the LACCD.”

A long history of activism

East Los Angeles College’s program is one of several recent efforts to bring Central American Studies to California colleges. In 2019, the faculty of UCLA’s Cesar Chavez Chicana/o Studies Department voted overwhelmingly to expand its name to include Central American Studies.

After years of students organizing for Central American Studies representation at UCLA, the department now has three full-time faculty members hired specifically to teach courses in the field: Alma, Leisy Abrego and Floridalma Boj Lopez. 

The three professors are co-teaching a class for the first time this fall to graduate students, focusing on the field of Central American Studies itself. 

“We’re looking at it as an opportunity to learn the field along with students who are telling us where they want it to go and where they see themselves going,” Abrego said. 

The rising interest in Central American Studies reflects patterns in migration and demographics, Abrego said.

Since 1980, the Central American-born population in the United States has grown ten-fold, with a 24% increase since 2010, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Regional civil wars in the 1980s threatened residents with displacement and economic instability, causing a wave of migration. Hurricanes and earthquakes in the late ’80s and early 1990s further spurred people to leave the region.  

About 81% of immigrants from Central America came when they were of working age, with a median age of 40 years old, the Migration Policy Institute reported. 

“As Central Americans and the children of those immigrants are getting to the age and (given) the chance to attend college, we’re just seeing more and more of that population in our classes,” Abrego said. 

Iris Ramirez, a student at UCLA pursuing a Ph.D. in Chicana/o and Central American Studies, was first drawn to the university because of UCLA’s cluster of Central American scholars that didn’t yet exist on other campuses. 

“It’s really complex to be part of a history that’s literally in the making.” 

Iris Ramirez, UCLA doctoral Student in Chicana/o and Central American Studies

Ramirez, who hopes to become a Central American Studies professor, said it’s important to carve out spaces within higher education where Central American scholars can come together and critically think about the diaspora. 

“It’s really complex to be part of a history that’s literally in the making,” Ramirez said. “I get very emotional thinking about it because, for a long time, I felt like I was crazy. Like my ideas weren’t valid because I didn’t have like-minded people around me.” 

Ramirez said she hoped the discipline would expand, noting that she has only been able to take two Central American Studies classes so far during her five years at UCLA. 

“I think a lot of us hope that we can have our own space once the institution understands that we can’t homogenize Latinos,” Ramirez said. “We should get our own autonomy and not always have to ask the question of why we are important within the context of Chicano Studies.” 

The development of ethnic studies fields takes a lot of work and organizing from students and faculty alike, Abrego said. She pointed out that the Chicano Studies department at UCLA was only established after decades of activism including a 14-day hunger strike by eight students and one faculty member in 1993. 

“Now that I’m chair of the department, I see how tough and complicated it is. There’s just so many layers of bureaucracy,” she said. 

“Sometimes folks think, ‘Well why can’t we have Central American Studies everywhere?’ ” Duarte said. “Because it takes a certain type of leadership to make that happen. And not only leadership in terms of faculty members, but also deans and college presidents. They have to see the importance of creating these programs.” 

UC Berkeley senior Osirus Polachart arrived on campus as a transfer student in 2020, and helped revive the Central Americans for Empowerment organization on campus. 

He and other students noticed a lack of Central American Studies courses at Berkeley, so they developed their own, centered on the history of colonialism and its impact on Central American populations. 

Registered through the Chicanx Student Development Program, the course is taught by current students, drawing on research by Abrego and other UCLA scholars. 

The class has had full enrollment every quarter it’s taught, and the waitlist often fills up, Polachart said.

Osirus Polachart on UC Berkeley’s Campus on Oct. 13, 2022. Katie Rodriguez for CalMatters

“The reason why we did this class in the first place is to show the university that we have people who are interested in taking these classes,” Polachart said. “We want to create an initiative for UC Berkeley to implement Central American Studies.” 

Despite outreach to University leadership, Polachart said the student group’s effort to organize for Central American Studies have not been as successful as they hoped.

In response, Dan Mogulof, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, said in a statement to CalMatters that “the Central Americans for Empowerment student organization made clear to the relevant academic department its interest in a program name change, and more courses that focus on Central Americans  The department has been working to expand its course offerings and expertise in Central American studies.”

Mogulof added that the university is “working to offer more courses and research opportunities focused on the Central American experience.” 

The students opened the Berkeley course to non-students as a way to break down barriers to higher education, said Polachart, who also hopes to teach Central American Studies in the future. 

“Academia is just used as a gatekeeper to keep regular people from knowing about things,” Polachart said. “People are longing to know about their history because it’s a long history of exploitation, of colonialism. And if we don’t know anything about our history, how can we change it?” 

East Los Angeles Community College’s Central American Studies program is also rooted in community engagement. Central American Studies courses were first taught in 2015 through a dual enrollment program at the Central American Resource Center, a local immigrant rights organization. 

Enrollment was open to community members as an attempt to increase college access and further develop the program before officially establishing it on campus. 

“When we’re talking about college access, this is college access – being out in the community, bringing college courses to our students so that we’re preparing them to either go into a four-year or continue their educational path,” said Duarte, who taught those early classes.

As scholars continue developing coursework within this field of study, Alma notes the importance of Central American representation within leadership roles. Faculty with strong connections to Central American countries can share their own life stories and experiences that are immensely valuable in providing an accurate understanding of the Central American experience in the United States, Alma said. 

“We want to inspire our students, and what greater inspiration than seeing themselves in front of a classroom and knowing that– if they want to be there– they can too,” Alma said. “They are like us and we are like them, and we share similar struggles. We know it’s not easy being Central American in the United States.”

Luna is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.