The UC Santa Cruz chapter of Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (USEU) gathered 91 students on Saturday and 51 on Sunday from colleges across California for its seventh annual statewide conference.
During the two-day conference, students were encouraged “to fill the breach between theory and practice by becoming active in the movements that demand and defend the liberation of oppressed peoples around the world,” according to the conference’s mission statement.
“The conference was a success, considering that it is the first time it has been hosted at UCSC,” said conference organizer Joanna Beltran.
The symposium consisted of several events, including workshops, a presentation by the Ayotzinapa Collective, a performance by Grupo Folklorico Maiz and speeches by professors Jennifer Cárcamo and Hector Perla. Workshop topics included political formation, social justice, language and identity.
“The conference was made up of a lot workshops that were not just themed about El Salvador,” said Samantha Pineda, USEU’s statewide representative and central coordinating committee representative. “They were also about Honduras, Puerto Rico, Palestine, Ferguson and different communities that we hoped students would form solidarity with.”
USEU addresses injustices and oppression in El Salvador, Latin America and the world so students may “see our realities reflected in other situations,” Pineda said.
“We have to realize that we are a part of communities that are often racialized and criminalized and that we are affected by politics,” Pineda said.
By educating students about their national histories and the similar narratives of other communities, USEU aims to inspire students, regardless of their backgrounds, to take action.
“As U.S. citizens, we have a historic responsibility because it’s our government that is often promoting the economic and military policies that are creating chaos and devastation in Latin America and around the world,” said Latin American and Latino studies professor Perla, who was the conference’s keynote speaker.
The conference’s rallying cry this weekend was “juventud despierta,” which means “youth awaken.”
“We have to realize that we are not just kids and we can have an effect on our communities and futures and other youth,” Pineda said.
Marvin Centeno, USEU’s statewide elect and next year’s statewide coordinator, challenged students to live by USEU’s motto, “¡Estudio y lucha! Study and fight.”
“We have to recognize our struggles mean a lot and they are essential to shaping who we are today,” Centeno said. “Stand up for your rights and what you believe in.”
USEU attendees were reminded that university students have opportunities and privileges that most people around the world don’t have. All of the workshops and presentations echoed the sentiment that students have the responsibility to take action and change the historic narratives that limit the visibility of the multiple perspectives of oppressed groups.
On Sunday morning, Perla’s retelling of national, historical and political narratives was punctuated by personal accounts from attendees and his own stories of family and identity. This two-sided discourse highlighted the responsibilities that students and younger generations have as a part of a longer history of political and social injustices.
“We’re given these incredible opportunities to study and become something,” Perla said. “Our vengeance for not being able to provide for our families and being kicked out is that we come back with love and try to make a better country.”
Creating these transnational communities and taking action is difficult because students are expected to redefine national identity and construct unique experiences while retaining a commitment to cultural authenticity.
“We are in an era where we are taught to isolate or ignore other people’s pain, but we should be able to feel a conviction to speak up for the people who are voiceless because it is our community and they are our people,” USEU coordinator Pineda said.
During the two days of the conference encompassing “student activism and social change in the 21st century,” there was an undertone to the weekend — tell your story.
“You can’t find all the answers because you haven’t written that story yet,” Perla said. “Those stories are not going to be told unless you tell them.”