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USEU brings Central American consciousness to Mills

Unión Salvadoreña de Estudiantes Universitarios (USEU), a student group with nearly a dozen other chapters across California, founded its first Mills chapter last fall, and has served as a locus for the Central American community on campus in the months since.

The club was founded by sophomores Andrea Ortiz Galdámez and Emmely Tot Mairena as a way to build community and address the specific experiences of Central American students.

“When you’re talking in spaces that centralize Latin America, a lot of the time that conversation is around Mexico and Mexican Americans,” Galdámez said.

The club grew out of a need for a space where Central American students could discuss the issues unique to being Central American, especially as Mills begins to embrace its newfound identity as a Hispanic-Serving Institution,  an institution where Latinx students make up at least 25 percent of the population.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of Central American friends,” Mairena said. “So being able to have communication with friends who understand little things that are so unique to Central America has helped me a lot.”

Ethnic Studies Professor Dr. Arely Zimmerman is USEU’s faculty advisor, and was involved in one of the first American chapters of USEU at UCLA. The organization, she explains, was originally founded transnationally, with chapters in California and El Salvador. The organization was made up of students who wanted to help democratize El Salvador, and, in 2009, voted en masse in the Salvadorean election, turning the country’s political tide.

“The main goal of USEU was to create a social justice organization for Central American students in the U.S. that could provide a vehicle for transnational participation and engagement,” Zimmerman said in an email.

Though contacts with El Salvadorean chapters have faded over the years, the leaders of the new Mills chapter hope to keep the club’s legacy of social justice alive through community engagement. Last semester, club members established communications with Oakland High School, which has a large population of youth who migrated from Central America unaccompanied.

“One of our goals is to get more involved with the Oakland community,” Mairena said. “We have been […] gathering a group of people here to volunteer at Oakland schools, in terms of tutoring or just helping [Central American students] navigate schools when it’s so different culturally and lingustically.”

Following Donald Trump’s election, Galdámez organized a walkout intended to express the concerns of students of color in the changing political climate. Though that initial protest was small, Galdámez intends to continue the club’s political involvement.

“I think the community is definitely something we should focus on right now, but also I’m wary of spaces where the focus is overly set on safe space or self care,” Galdámez said. “Not that those things are not valid, but I feel like oftentimes […] we could be using that time for community organizing, which, many people don’t realize, is also a form of self care, especially for marginalized communities.”

Zimmerman notes that, though the membership of the original USEU organizations has flagged on some other campuses, the Mills chapter is flourishing.

“The Mills chapter of USEU has become very important in continuing the legacy of the students that initially formed the [organization],” Zimmerman said. “USEU at Mills has been invigorated by many students of Central American origin/descent who are looking for a space to get involved, connect with their cultural roots and learn about their history.”

The organization has a number of events planned for the rest of the semester, including several film viewings and discussions, as well as an event aimed at decolonizing lotería, a popular game in Central America and Mexico. Both Galdámez and Mairena have every intention of using the space they have so far created to encourage greater support of Central American students by the Mills community.

“The demographics of Mills are changing and, being Central American, we want our voices to be heard,” Mairena said.