Campus News

Members of Carolina’s Latinx community share their stories

In spite of the robust amount of positive political, educational, artistic, scientific and health achievements of generations of Hispanic/Latinx Americans, some members of the community say they still experience a sense of “otherness.”

National Hispanic Heritage Month (or Latinx Heritage Month) runs from September 15 through October 15, a national acknowledgment of the contributions that Latinx people have made to the United States over the course of its history. In spite of the robust amount of positive political, educational, artistic, scientific and health achievements of generations of Hispanic/Latinx Americans, there still remains a sense of “otherness” that they experience. At work, school and in the community, Hispanic/Latinx Americans often find themselves misunderstood, underestimated and unappreciated.

In hopes of building a better sense of understanding of the difficulties and lived experiences of our Latinx friends and colleagues, several members of Carolina’s Latinx community have generously shared their stories.

Josmell Perez

director, Carolina Latinx Center

Soy orgulloso de ser Latino! I am proud to be Latino!

Latinos are not monolithic. We represent several different countries, Indigenous cultures, socioeconomic classes and religious affiliations. Some would want to pigeonhole us as all Brown, poor and uneducated people. But there is great depth, richness and resilience in our individual stories, including mine.

My parents came to the United States in 1989 from Peru, leaving everything behind to provide their three young kids a better future. They did not know the language and, therefore, had to do manual jobs to provide us with opportunities to succeed. They promoted education and believed it was the great equalizer. We grew up surrounded by the warmth of family love, community and a blend in cultures.

My wife, Carla, whose family is from Puerto Rico, and I want to make sure we pass that same sense of orgullo to our daughters. In some ways, they are getting more exposure than I did. My parents, although still in New Jersey, can visit and with today’s technology are able to be present to watch the girls grow. Carla’s family is local, so they have that warmth of family nearby. We are also fortunate to be able to provide them with books, music and kids’ shows in Spanish — something I did not have when I was growing up here. Our oldest even goes to a bilingual school. We understand that we are privileged to have had the education and resources to provide these opportunities to our daughters. This type of access to opportunities is what I want for all my students and all our communities.

In New Jersey where I grew up, there were lots of pockets of Latinos. Some served as role models and others served as examples of what you did not want to become. We moved around some until we landed in a small town in northern New Jersey. My parents had strict rules for us to adhere to, such as no sleepovers — but friends were always welcome to come play at our house. They always wanted to keep us close and safe.

My sense of Latinidad was not really brought into focus until I went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was pre-med, an EMT, played football and pledged a fraternity. I did not want to fit into any labels. I decided I would major in Spanish since I “knew” the language. I got the chance to dive deep into literature and go into the broader Latinx community of Allentown thanks to Dr. Erika Sutherland, a great teacher, friend and mentor. Another friend and mentor from the admissions office, Cynthia Amaya, also helped me understand that even if I did not want a label to be put on me as a Latino male, a label was being put nonetheless — and that we are always being judged and examined under that label.

It was upon that realization that I became active in promoting higher education as the great equalizer. I took what I learned from Erika and Cynthia and many others to be the change we want to see. It is with this approach that we took on the task to start a center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We rallied around our communities and pushed and pushed. Although it took us over a decade to accomplish it, we did so. Now we are working to make the center able to support, educate, engage and promote our communities.

Maribel Carrion, MBA ’86

executive director, student administration systems, ITS

When I was a student in North Carolina, teachers often struggled to pronounce my name correctly and would often ask where I was from. In my first year of high school, I had a new experience with my name: When I stepped into my PE class, it was the boys’ class. The coach sent me to the principal’s office to reschedule. I’m sorry to say that it happened again the next year, same boys’ PE class, same coach sending me back.

Talk about feeling different!

I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but did not grow up there. My father was in the military, so home was wherever he was stationed. The result was an upbringing where I didn’t feel I fully belonged anywhere. I always felt divided: At home with family, I was one person, at school and then work I was another.

When I first came to Carolina as an undergrad, the only other Latina I knew was my sister, also a student here. When I returned to Carolina as a grad student years later, Latinos were still few and far between — especially as instructors. That was decades ago, and Carolina today is very different.

Since I started working at Carolina in 2009, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting other Latino staff and faculty, as well as many Latino students. It makes a difference in how you feel about a place when you get to spend time with others who have a similar background and language. That is why I wanted to see the Carolina Latinx Center established. It was important that students especially had a place where they were comfortable being themselves wholly — and to have a place they could come back to at Carolina and reconnect in the future.

After a lot of hard work from the students (along with faculty and staff), it was wonderful to see the center finally open in 2019. Given these challenging times, the CLC is even more important for Latinos to be able to support each other. As the center evolves, my hope is that it ensures the voices of this community continue to be heard across this campus and state.

Yesenia Pedro Vicente

assistant director, diversity & student success in The Graduate School

Growing up, I understood that my family’s culture was more nuanced than “Hispanic” or “Latinx,” but it wasn’t until high school that my Indigenous identity became more salient. Now, I proudly identify as Maya Q’anjob’al and seek to make others aware of Indigenous communities in Latin America.

My family is Maya Q’anjob’al. My ancestors are native to the western highlands of Guatemala. My parents, Andres and Isabel, grew up in a small village called Ojo de Agua in the 1970s. They lived there for the first 10 years of their lives until raids from both guerrilla and military troops forced their families to relocate to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Many Mayan families moved to southern Mexico during the Guatemalan Civil War with the hope that crossing the border would protect them from future raids. My parents grew up in a refugee colonia in Chiapas until 1990, when they decided to migrate to the U.S. in the hopes of finding jobs to support their parents and growing family.

I was born in California, where my father worked various jobs in restaurants and farms to keep the family afloat. After a couple of years, my family boarded a Greyhound bus bound for eastern Tennessee. My father had heard from friends and distant relatives that poultry plants were hiring. We lived in Monterey, Tennessee, just over three years before moving to western North Carolina in 1999. The move to North Carolina was critical in my identity formation. Upon moving, we joined a growing Mayan community at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Morganton.

Morganton is unique in that it is a Southern town with a significant Mayan population. It was while attending mass at St. Charles that I found myself surrounded by people that look like me and speak Q’anjob’al, like my parents. As a child, I knew that my parents speak a language that isn’t Spanish, but I had never asked about it in much detail up until then. Now I found myself attending birthday parties, baptisms and celebrations with other families that speak the same language my parents do. In addition to Q’anjob’al, community members speak Kaqchikel, K’iche and other Mayan languages.

My knowledge of Q’anob’al is limited to a few words and phrases. I speak Spanish and English. When communicating with my parents, I speak in Spanish. However, my parents speak Q’anjob’al with each other. According to my mother, my siblings and I understood some Q’anjob’al as toddlers, but we began to lose our understanding the more we played with the children of Mexican immigrants in California and Tennessee. Once we began school, my mother feared that speaking Q’anjob’al, Spanish and English would confuse us. She did not want her children to mix up the three languages or to speak each one poorly, not gaining mastery in any of them. These fears prompted my parents to speak to us in Spanish.

During my teenage years, I became involved in social activities at St. Charles Borromeo, which allowed me to explore my Mayan identify further. My sisters and I participated in the annual cultural celebrations, which included performing traditional dances while wearing traje. It was during this time that Maureen Dougher, a church member who served as the interpreter for the priest during the Spanish mass, reached out to me and my sisters to start a Hispanic youth group. During these meetings, Maureen encouraged us and the other participants to consider a college education. Maureen emphasized our Mayan identity and told us that our cultural background is important and unique. She showed us a video about ancient Mayan civilization and explained that a civil war caused people to migrate. This period is when my Mayan identity first became an explicit point of pride. This was when I became interested in learning more about migration, Guatemalan history and Mayan culture.

While attending Carolina for my undergraduate degree, I began a deeper exploration into Latin American history and migration. I took a variety of courses in anthropology, history and romance studies. I learned more about the colonization of Latin America, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and U.S. intervention in Central American politics. The more I learned about Latin American history and migration, the more I began to negotiate my identity (and privilege) as a U.S. citizen who is also the daughter of Indigenous immigrants.

Nowadays, when people ask about my cultural identity, I proudly respond that I am Maya Q’anjob’al, born in the U.S. and raised (mostly) in the South. My hope is that sharing my story will help people realize the diversity of peoples and cultures that Latinidad often fails to consider, and help others recognize that Indigenous people are still here and thriving.

The rise of Latinx

The term “Latinx” has emerged in recent years as a gender-neutral alternative to the pan-ethnic terms Latino, Latina and Hispanic. While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably (for example, by the U.S. Census Bureau), “Hispanic” includes people with ancestry from Spain and Latin American Spanish-speaking countries, while “Latino/a” includes people from Latin American countries that were formerly colonized by Spain or Portugal. Ultimately, the difference between “Latinx” and “Hispanic” largely comes down to how one self-identifies.

For more Carolina Latinx community stories, visit the University Office for Diversity and Inclusion.