El Centro Chicano hosts Power Pan Dulce speaker series

El Centro Chicano hosted Leah Gallegos, former USC athlete and current member of urban folk band Las Cafeteras, to share the story of her career and discuss cultural and personal identity as part of El Centro’s Friday Power Pan Dulce, a speaker series held at the organization’s Student Union lounge on Friday.

The speaker series connects Latino students and El Centro’s multi-layered community with experienced alumni and Latino leaders for discussions. During the event, students had questions about Gallegos’ career trajectory and personal journey to success.

Leadership, career advice and cultural identity compose the three pillars of Power Pan Dulce that speakers usually address, though El Centro Director William Vela said students take the conversation in various directions.

“It’s really interactive. I ask a few questions to get it rolling but pretty quickly we go to the crowd and it really becomes a conversation dialogue, not a panel or a lecture,” Vela said.

Since transferring from Florida State University to USC, Gallegos has engaged in several different careers: soccer, music, yoga and business. She played on the USC women’s soccer team in 2005, nearly becoming a professional player, and then became director of operations for the USC women’s soccer team soon after graduating with an ethnic studies degree in 2007. Eventually, she left the position to spend more time with the seven-piece band, Las Cafeteras, which was named Best Alternative Latin Band by LA Weekly in 2013 and has toured with acts such as Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Still a band member, Gallegos also teaches yoga in Boyle Heights at the studio she co-founded in 2012, People’s Yoga.

Gallegos addressed the challenges of her multiethnic, multi-identity background after growing up in Highland Park with a strong Latino culture and community.  She spoke of being heavily involved in soccer, which she described as “a privileged world; mostly white folk.”

“In this more white world [of soccer], my friends would say, ‘You’re so Mexican!’ and in the Mexican world they would say, ‘You’re such a white girl,’” Gallegos said. “I lived this dual life of going back and forth, trying to fit in over here, and also accepting these identities that were being thrown at me.”

After taking her first ethnic studies course at East Los Angeles Community College in the midst of transferring to USC, Gallegos started to come into her own.

“It was a moment in my life where I understood not only being Mexican-American … but also of being from many worlds. I took this ‘chicanisma’ as being as many identities and none at the same time,” she said.

When Gallegos joined Las Cafeteras, it was just a group of people at a community center that practiced a Son Jarocho-style together. She said the band allowed her to grow in new artistic and personal directions. Five of the seven members of Las Cafeteras, including Gallegos, never made music until adulthood. She said the topics the band writes about also provide an outlet for the members to tell their stories and encourage others to do the same.

“We talk about love, immigration, politics, and what we think is right, just and unjust, and that’s because it’s relevant to our experiences,” Gallegos said. “We travel not only to perform, but also to tell people, ‘tell people your story too’ because we believe that the storytelling practice is an empowering and world-changing practice.”

Power Pan Dulce evolved last year out of a pilot program modeled after other universities’ community-gathering programs. Vela began to introduce notable speakers after the beginning months of the pilot, an arrangement that he says students often engage in with personal stories.

“There’s been some really deep things revealed by a lot of people in attendance,” Vela said. “I feel students have been comfortable with the people we’ve brought and it’s opened their hearts; it’s opened their minds; it’s opened their souls to just express what they’re feeling or what they’re going through and just ask honest questions.”

Brian Vanover, a graduate student studying computer science, sees Power Pan Dulce as a way to keep himself informed.

“It’s important to stay plugged into the Latino community,” he said during Friday’s event.

Annalaura Arredondo, a junior majoring in chemical engineering, echoed these sentiments and believes attending El Centro’s events supports Latinos and helps her learn about how to manage career difficulties.

“It is important to support Latino events since it’s a way to continue increasing the Latino voice,” Arredondo said.

Vela said he is sometimes asked if he brings speakers specifically to motivate students toward social justice. He admitted that though social justice is not necessarily his goal, it does end up being central to the goals of El Centro. He said this comes in the form of helping students understand they should eventually reciprocate resources to the community that once helped them become successful.

“I want every student that comes through El Centro to know that they didn’t just do it on their own and [they have] a moral obligation to give back, but they can do that in any form they want to,” Vela said. “I don’t think everybody needs to work at a nonprofit, [but] I just make sure [people don’t] forget. Other people helped you, so give back; that’s what USC is if you think about it. It’s a Trojan family.”