Since arriving at USC, sophomore Micaela Mengen has tried to drink mate as often as she can. It’s a close tie to life at home with her Uruguayan family in New Jersey. She hasn’t tried to make her grandmother’s tortas fritas yet but plans to when she finds the right ingredients in Los Angeles.
“It’s definitely very hard to preserve my Uruguayan culture,” Mengen said, before acknowledging that in New Jersey she was never around many Uruguayans anyway. “It’s very hard to get access to my food. I only found one Argentinian, Uruguayan cafe that sells some products, but it’s all the way in Culver City.”
As with Mengen, life at USC has proven to be a cultural change for many Latinx students who come to University Park Campus for college. Mengen’s former world of Cuban, Colombian and Chilean cuisines was replaced with the predominantly Mexican and Salvadoran cuisines of her new city.
Students from a variety of Latinx cultural backgrounds, traditions, experiences and identities have had to navigate new realities at USC, home to a student body that is 15% Hispanic. Many have been thrown into a world opposite to what they’ve known, where they now work to preserve the traditions they’ve grown up with, all while finding community.
“You have that bond of knowing each other’s culture,” said Mengen, who is majoring in international relations global business and data science. “You can understand all the inside jokes, you can eat the same food. All these things.”
Lo bonito de ser Latinx
At home, senior Michael Uranga’s closest ties to his Mexican roots have been intimately linked with family and faith.
Growing up in Yorba Linda, a city with a similar proportion of Latinx individuals to USC, Uranga said connecting with his culture always meant meeting up with his cousins at his grandmother’s house in Whittier, hearing the Spanish of his aunt’s conversations echo across the house. Big birthday parties at his aunt’s home nearby always meant mariachi music and good food.
Because of school — and now the coronavirus pandemic — the accounting major hasn’t been able to be with his family in the same way as before, though he’s been able to grow more closely connected to his Latinidad and Catholicism through the Caruso Catholic Center.
Now the president of the Catholic Center’s executive board, Uranga said that looking back, he’s thankful for all the friendships he’s been afforded there.
“I was able to meet really interesting friends of Latino heritage that have had much different experiences than me,” Uranga said. “Some grew up in Nicaragua their whole lives, others from Mexico and had moved to Canada for some time. Seeing what their experiences were like kind of helped feed me in knowing that, yeah, we have all different backgrounds of what it means to be Latino, but we can come together in the church.”
For others, the most prominent way they’ve tried to stay in touch with their roots is through food and tradition.
Daniela Flores, a graduate student studying occupational therapy, always makes time for la hora de la once — tea time — as she was accustomed to in Chile.
“When I first moved here, I [was] like, ‘Why is nobody drinking tea at 6 p.m.? What’s going on?’” Flores said, laughing. “So that’s something that I’ve implemented at my house. If I have guests over, they know that at 6 p.m. we have tea and that’s just how it goes.”
Alexandra Da Silva, a senior majoring in biomedical engineering, is used to maintaining her Venezuelan identity primarily through family, having grown up in Redondo Beach, which is one-sixth Latino. Christmas means hallacas, and when New Year’s Eve comes around, it’s time for yellow underwear for good luck, 12 grapes for 12 wishes and a quick walk around the block with a suitcase for wealth and travels, among other traditions.
“It’s definitely been a lot easier to keep up with traditions and stuff since I’ve been home,” said Da Silva, who is taking classes remotely from Redondo Beach. “We predominantly eat Venezuelan food when I’m home, whereas when I’m in college, obviously, I’m not gonna take time to make Venezuelan food.”
Freshman Gabriela Martinez, who is in New Jersey, is also closely tied to her Salvadoran and Nicaraguan roots through her family.
Growing up in Newark, a city dominated by Puerto Rican and Dominican culture, Martinez said her parents taught her to carry her pride for the two small Central American countries they called home nearly four decades ago. It’s a sense of pride she feels each time she takes a bite of a pupusa or a nacatamal or whenever she attends family parties for get-togethers.
“Those aspects of the culture definitely have blended Salvadoran-Nicaraguan dialect with Puerto Rican and Dominican dialect, which has also been really funny, but also really interesting,” said Martinez, who is majoring in political science.
Similar to Mengen, Martinez expects to face a strong change in environment when she eventually attends classes in person. However, she has family near campus that she’s excited to connect with on a deeper level.
Outside of family, language has been a considerably deep tie to identity for those who are accustomed to speaking Spanish at home and in their communities.
For junior Maria Takigawa, a Peruvian American who primarily grew up in the border city of El Paso, Texas, she’s always made the extra effort to practice Spanish at home. She’s also been used to ordering at restaurants and taco trucks in Spanish, something she hasn’t necessarily been able to do on campus.
“I think it’s interesting because El Paso is very much rooted in Mexican culture — the bordertown to Juarez,” Takigawa said. “So I didn’t really grow up seeing my own culture, Peruvian culture, reflected here, but I grew up seeing Mexican culture, which I also really enjoy.”
Familia entre desconocidos
Even for junior Danny Proa, who grew up near East L.A., just a few miles from the University Park Campus, entering USC required much adjustment.
Suddenly, small things such as mannerisms and speech were completely different, which resulted in second-guessing pronunciations and the diction he was accustomed to in his 96% Latinx part of town.
“Here I am still with this accent in a way, and it makes me doubt my abilities even though I have to remind myself that I got into USC for a reason and that I belong there,” said Proa, who is majoring in cinema and media studies.
This experience has been no different for senior Victor Peralta, who has felt the sudden yet significant change in atmosphere between his home in South Gate and campus.
“Right when you get within a block of campus, it feels almost like you have to walk a little straighter and put your college face on because you have to realize there’s a bunch of people just trying to make it out here, people that are gonna judge you, how you carry yourself and the way you present yourself, the way you talk,” said Peralta, who is majoring in narrative studies. “There’s a big difference than when I’m back home.”
For some students, finding cultural connections at USC has been easiest through friends, cultural organizations and their programming.
La CASA is the most predominantly Latino-centered space on campus, situated among other cultural centers tucked on the fourth floor of the Student Union. The tiny, cozy space invites students with its bright, colorful walls and a vibrant mural emblazoned with messages of empowerment. In the typical, in-person semester, students would walk in and out of the space frequently. It’s constantly occupied by students working, chatting or stopping by the kitchen.
“Sometimes when you attend a predominately white institution, it’s often hard to see others that look like you, perhaps now on a screen, but on campus,” said Naddia Palacios, the interim director of La CASA.
Palacios replaced former director Billy Vela after he was removed from his position Oct. 7.
“We want to make sure, you know, you at least have that space that could be like, ‘OK, this is my primary identity. I can go in there and find support,’” she said.
Peralta is one student who found community through the cultural center, though he didn’t find it until later in his USC journey. It wasn’t until his junior year, after meeting some friends who are now his roommates at the involvement fair, that he ventured into La CASA.
“I would always disregard that email because I felt like I didn’t see them anywhere else other than my email,” Peralta said. “I guess I didn’t really, for lack of a better word, believe them … but when I actually went to the middle of the office in the student center, it was so welcoming, it was crazy.”
“I went in there and it smelled like my house back home, like you smell a kitchen, like mom’s cooking,” he added, “It was just people like me studying, eating their lunch.”
La CASA also supports a special interest community in Fluor Tower known as El Sol y La Luna, a floor dedicated to connecting students of Latinx backgrounds with one another. Although Martinez hasn’t been able to live on the floor physically, she’s been able to connect with students virtually.
Aside from La CASA, the Latinx Student Assembly oversees more than 20 different Latino-focused organizations. As a leading group on campus, LSA focuses largely on creating a safe, welcoming space for students of all backgrounds through intentional programming that tackles common issues and major topics of discussion, including colorism, machismo and homophobia.
“There’s still issues very prevalent in our community,” said Miguel Moran, LSA’s director of external affairs. “So just programming in collaboration with other LSA member orgs … is something that LSA has done really well.”
Donde las identidades se cruzan
Latinidad is not just about regional heritage but also about intersectionality.
Though Proa has gone to La CASA a few times, he found his true home at the Lavender Lounge through the LGBTQ+ Student Center.
For Proa, being Latinx and LGBTQ+ means walking an intersection less traveled. The Latino community isn’t known for embracing LGBTQ+ individuals, which makes it difficult to find others who have chosen to outwardly embrace their identities, he said.
“I met this amazing guy,” Proa said. “He was a worker there, and he was transgender. So he took the time to chat with me about his experiences, and it was then that I was like, ‘holy shit, it makes sense.’ I felt a little bit in tune with myself.”
After being exposed to what it meant to be transgender from those at the Lavender Lounge, Proa began to seek out more information about it.
Coming from a family with values deeply rooted in Catholicism and heteronormativity, Proa said being accepted as transgender has not been an easy road. He said growing up in a largely Latinx community like East L.A. didn’t allow him to truly understand identity in its broad scope until reaching USC and connecting with people at the Lavender Lounge.
“After going to the Lavender room, I got more confidence to be myself and actually came out to my peers around me,” Proa said. “I actually was exposed to learning about transgender people. And it’s kind of embarrassing that it took me to go to college to learn about individuals like that. I started questioning everything around me; I started questioning myself.”
Lauren Pierre, a junior majoring in psychology, also finds herself at an intersection.
It’s been easier for her to connect with her Black culture, she said, because of her outward appearance, but she’s grown up largely around her mom’s Mexican family that resides mostly in Southern California.
She lived on the Somerville Place Residential Floor in Fluor Tower through the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs her first year and has gone to LSA and La CASA meetings and programming, which has allowed her to grow from their resources.
“I have two friends that I lived with my freshman year on Somerville, on the all Black floor, but they’re also half Mexican,” Pierre said. “So it’s been pretty cool connecting with them because I didn’t really have any other friends in high school that were half Latinx and half Black.”
For Takigawa, whose Japanese background also serves as a large part of her identity, she’s felt more comfortable finding community among individuals rather than groups. Although she is part of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism outlet Dímelo, which covers the Latinx community on campus and beyond, she hasn’t truly felt as comfortable connecting with La CASA or the Asian Pacific American Student Assembly because her identity is in between.
“I think it’s interesting to be perceived as more Asian-looking,” Takigawa said. “But I know that I can speak Spanish better than Japanese, and certain parts of myself, I feel that I’m more Latina … I gravitate more to Spanish. And with food and countrywise I know Japan better than I know Peru.”
Takigawa finds that people often don’t realize that Peru received an influx of Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Both her parents are ethnically Japanese, though her mom is from Peru and her dad from Japan. Despite this, she’s always found the Latinx community welcoming whether on or off campus.
“It’s mi gente. If you meet a Latina, they’re gonna help you and you’re going to help them,” Takigawa said. “I think that’s the best part of the Latinx community. It’s so warm and loving.”
That’s a sentiment Peralta finds true too, especially since connecting with Latinos at USC.
“I feel like it means much more to me, and it’s a big part of who I am,” Peralta said about his Latinidad. “When I was a little bit younger, coming into college, my major was the thing I wanted people to know about me first, but right now, I guess having grown a little bit, having seen a bit more and having experienced the community here, I feel like I want people to know that I’m a Chicano. I’m a Mexican American.”
“I want people to know that there’s more of us here,” he added. “We deserve to be here just like them.”
Editor’s note: Maria Takigawa contributed design elements to this special issue.