‘A piece of my heart is over there’: Life through the eyes of Latinx Students

By Haviland Stewart | October 9, 2021 5:03pm

Latinx Students (from top left to bottom right): Danile Perez Vargas, Diego Madrigal, and Jahayra Garcia-Sandoval.

Photos by Marek Corsello

Image courtesy of UnSplash

Canva by Haviland Stewart

When Daniela Perez Vargas was 17 years old, she watched her father get deported for the third time. When he attempted to reconnect with his family, he was given three years of prison time for re-entry under Trump's presidency. 

“It's terrible, I hate it,” Perez Vargas said. “Because my whole life is over here, but a piece of my heart is over there.”

This separation of family members that Perez Vargas has been faced with multiple times growing up, is something that so many other members of Latinx culture have dealt with throughout their lives. 

“It's so difficult because people don't understand how it affects your family and yourself, your mental health, your economic status, how you do well in school, and how you perform in a job,” Perez Vargas said. “It affects everything in your life.”

Danile Perez Vargas is a senior majoring in Spanish with minors in Biology and Psychology.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

Perez Vargas grew up in the predominantly white city of McMinnville, OR, with her family before moving to Portland for college.

“I've been around really white institutions my whole life,” Perez Vargas said. “And for a certain amount of time I didn't really embrace my full side of being Latina. And then I came to UP and I found a community of students that also kind of felt this ‘otherness.’ Since I've come to college I've been more in tune with being Latina and being a Mexican American, what that represents to me, and finding that side of my identity as well.”

While Perez Vargas has found a supportive community on campus, at times, it doesn’t always feel like it. UP has historically been a predominantly white institution. It wasn’t until this past year that the majority of the student body identified as non-white. 

Danile Perez Vargas is the President of the Latinx Student Union.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

“It's difficult at times, just because I don't always look around and see students that look like me,” Perez Vargas said. “I don't have that familiarity here. I think I got really lucky that I made friends that are also Hispanic, and they have been a really strong foundation for me here.”

As the president of Latinx Student Union, Perez Vargas wants to ensure that all Latinx students feel heard and represented on this campus. 

“My goal this year is to really unify Latinos [on campus] so they know that they have community and support, because if it wasn't for me finding my own community here . . . I don't think it'd be a UP, I think it would have transferred to be honest,”  Perez Vargas said. “I don't want other students to have that experience because this is a great school. There's just a lot of work that needs to go in for students of color, there really is. And so that advocacy piece and then also just wanting to create a safe space for students on campus is what made me want to become president.”

Despite the challenges that members of the Latinx community are faced with in society, Perez Vargas wants to encourage students to be advocates for change.

“Your identity and your culture, even though it might present obstacles in the United States, that doesn't define you,”  Perez Vargas said. “You can be empowered through it, and you can empower others as well.”

Daniela Perez Vargas 

Major: Spanish

Minors: Biology, Psychology

Graduating: 2022

Pronouns: She/Her/Ella 

Growing up in California as the son of immigrants, Diego Madrigal has been navigating the lack of representation in the education system, media and society since childhood.

“When I was a little kid I saw white as the standard for things, so growing up and seeing all the other white actors and white teachers and all that, you just think it's normal,” Madrigal said. 

Diego Madrigal is a sophomore mechanical engineer major.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

While moving to Portland meant an increase in diversity for Perez Vargas, leaving Oakland and moving to Portland meant venturing into a much whiter environment than Madrigal was used to.

“I can feel that I'm the minority here and it's definitely not what it would have been like at [some other schools], but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing,” Madrigal said. “Being in a smaller community makes us grow closer together.”

While it has not always been easy, Madrigal has found a sense of community at UP through organizations like the Latinx Student Union. 

“[I have struggled with] expectations that were set on me, not just by my parents, but by myself too,” Madrigal said. “Being the son of immigrants, I had to go to college, I had to study hard, work hard and I felt like there was very little room for error.”

Diego Madrigal is a sophomore mechanical engineer major.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

Madrigal feels the desire to act as a role model for other young members of the Latinx community, and his two younger siblings. 

To Madrigal, family is everything. Growing up surrounded by 30 to 40 of his closest family members, Madrigal felt constant love and support.

“Family values [are a big part of my culture] and socially and politically, being hispanic has exposed me to certain issues like immigration, racism in America, and inequality that I probably otherwise wouldn't have noticed,” Madrigal said. 

Madrigal wants to encourage members of the UP community to push themselves to learn about and engage with different heritages to broaden their life experiences and ideologies.

“Brown is beautiful,” Madrigal said. “Our culture is beautiful. There's a lot of political turmoil, everyone is kind of scared and things are tense nowadays. But I think it’s important to just learn about other cultures, to learn about other things and widen your sense of the world.” 

Diego Madrigal

Major: Mechanical Engineering 

Graduating: 2024

Pronouns: He/Him/His

“What are you?” — It’s a question that cut Jahayra Garcia-Sandoval to the bone, and is one she has been faced with many times since coming to UP four years ago from Hermiston, OR. 

“That was the first time I felt that something was stripped of me because [being Hispanic is] always something that I've been so proud of and something so close to me,” Garcia-Sandoval said. “I love being Hispanic. It's a part of me.”

For 18 years of her life, Garcia-Sandoval never had to explain her identity to others. 

Jahayra Garcia-Sandoval is a senior studying OTM and Spanish.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

“[At first my time at UP] was hard, because back home there were a lot of Hispanic people, and most people knew I was Hispanic, because it was just a part of who I am,” Garcia-Sandoval said. “Then I came to school here, and people would question me in a way I had never been questioned before.” 

Growing up speaking Spanish in their home, participating in cultural activities, and eating home cooked tacos, Garcia-Sandoval believes that she and her four siblings were raised true to their roots.  

“Coming here was such a culture shock, because of the lack of people of color that I saw — people like me,” Garcia-Sandoval said. “Back home I was used to having all my friends, and we would do all these things that were a part of our culture. And then I came here and I didn’t have any of that exposure here.”

Jahayra Garcia-Sandoval is a senior studying OTM and Spanish.
by Marek Corsello / The Beacon

Since then, Garcia-Sandoval has become the events coordinator for Latinx Student Union and has helped the Latinx UP community grow closer, giving support and community to other students.

“Just the other day we had our first meeting and there was a room full of people — there were easily about 60 students in the room — and I was just amazed,” Garcia-Sandoval said. “My freshman year I would have loved to see this, but now that I am a part of leadership and I can help all these younger kids, it makes me feel like I am making a difference.”

Garcia-Sandoval encourages all of the UP community to branch out and try new things in hopes of working to create more understanding and commonality across cultures. Every culture is different, she said, and from the outside you never know what cultural experiences you might be missing out on. 

“Being Hispanic means the world to me,” Garcia-Sandoval said. “It's just honestly one of the best things that could have happened to me. I always told my mom that one of the things I'm most grateful for that she gave me was my culture.”

Jahayra Garcia-Sandoval 

Major(s): OTM and Spanish

Graduating: 2022

Pronouns: She/Her/Ella

Haviland Stewart is the Living Section Editor for The Beacon, she can be reached at stewarth22@up.edu.