At eight years old, Kenia Perez, now 21, and her mother crossed the Mexican border to the United States in search of a new home in the perceived Land of Opportunity.
At the time, Perez did not fully understand the significance of pursuing the supposed American Dream. It seemed more like folklore, like the stories she narrated in her own imagination. Perez soon became wise to the fact that her dreams were different from that of America.
Perez’ aunt lived in Las Vegas after their migration to the United States.
“At first they thought my mom would have an easier time finding work in Vegas,” Perez said. “But the school system was less receptive to immigrants.”
Assimilating to American norms was a challenge for Perez. Her culture, customs and mother language made her feel like an outcast.
“In Vegas, the schools were predominately white, with English-speaking instruction,” she said. “My mom said she would always see me crying outside of school because I was afraid.”
Perez’ mother had the same goal of any immigrant parent: to provide her children with a better, more stable environment than the one she grew up in. Her mother, like many others throughout the nation, knew that education was the ticket out of living a life in the shadows.
After six months, Perez’ mother made the decision to leave Las Vegas. The goal was to find a place that reminded her more of their homeland, Michoacán, Mexico. Together, they made another sacrifice for the hopes of finding a place to call home.
Their new home was situated along the coast of California, where an abundant history of migrant culture grew from its fields of strawberries. Perez said once she and her mother arrived in Oxnard, she felt a greater sense of belonging.
“They had a lot of different migrant programs,” she said. “I was in English and Spanish immersion classes where there was a lot of Latin students that I found I could relate to.”
Perez said one of the biggest motivations for her to succeed in school was because she didn’t want to be ridiculed for her accent or saying things in a “weird” way. She recalled countless hours reading books so she could finally express herself in her new language. Now, Perez looks back with sadness for the loss of culture that she had to endure in order to become “American.”
“That’s exactly what white supremacy wants,” she explained. “They want all immigrants to become as white as possible.”
About ten years after arriving, Perez was figuring out where to go to college. Cognizant of the financial burden of higher education, Perez considered only a few schools within the CSU system. Even though Perez had never visited San Francisco, she moved to the city with pockets full of optimism and determination.
Perez said that the Race and Resistance Studies program helped her piece together the history of her own oppression. Through her education she has gained a more profound relationship with her identity as an immigrant.
“It’s sad that now I have to go back and find these pieces of my culture all over again when I could have had them all along,” she said. “It’s crazy to be here at SFSU, and to read about decolonizing, and ingenuity, and what does it mean to move from one colonized place to another.”
Perez noted that her classes within the Ethnic Studies department helped her contextualize and make sense of her own experiences in Oxnard. She illustrated the moment she walked into her first Latina/o/x studies class: “I remember walking in and 98 percent of the class identified as Latin,” she said. “There’s just something that feels a little safer when you walk into a room that’s full of people that look like you.”
Larry Salomon, an SF State alumnus and lecturer within the College of Ethnic Studies, has had Kenia in a few of his classes.
“I’m really humbled to work with students who are dealing with all of the regular obligations and pressures that come with being full-time students, but also have this thing constantly hanging over their heads,” he said. “And without exception, they deal with it all with incredible grace and courage. Maybe it’s a cliché to say how much we’re inspired by our students, but I just have so much respect and admiration for them.”
Perez is but a blink away from graduation. She knows she wants to continue on to law school, but for now, she is focusing on applying for various immigrant rights grassroots organization fellowships in San Francisco.
“I really just want to do some organizing,” she said. “Either for the rest of my life or even just a couple of years while I am also trying to do law school.”
Perez has been interning with The Prison Advocacy Network for a little over 8 months. In running a campaign to end solitary confinement, Perez found she was able to relate the way that solitary confinement feels to the experience of being an immigrant in the U.S.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself and I have been able to reclaim a lot of things from my culture,“ she said. “I also learned the American Dream comes at the expense of losing a lot.”