The birthplace of two of the nation's first ethnic studies departments is now home to the first Central American studies minor, Cal State Northridge officials announced Monday.
The program will focus on the half-million Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Hondurans and other Central American immigrants in Southern California, a number projected to reach more than 2.5 million by 2010.
"Cal State Northridge is the de facto intellectual center of Central Americans and Central American studies in the United States," said Roberto Lovato, the program's coordinator.
Lovato, a Salvadoran immigrant who is president of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, said the program will focus on the effects of globalization on Central Americans, many of whom frequently shuttle between nations, cultures and languages.
The minor, which requires 18 units of course work, will also delve into the legacy of Central American wars and government oppression over the past century.
Two of the first Chicano and African American studies departments in the U.S. were established at Cal State Northridge in the late 1960s.
The program has already attracted the interest of dozens of students, who have had the opportunity since January to take classes such as "The Salvadoran Experience," "The Central American Diaspora" and "Seminar on Politics of Central America."
Cal State Northridge is home to 1,200 students of Central American descent, more than at any other American university, Lovato said.
Interim President Louanne Kennedy said members of the Central American United Student Assn. first approached her with the idea in 1993, but a year later the Northridge earthquake derailed those discussions as administrators concentrated on recovery.
Students suggested the minor again in 1997, this time to College of Humanities Dean Jorge Garcia, who enlisted the support of other professors and campus administrators.
"With different leadership, in a different era, we have done this without all the protests and the marches," said Garcia, referring to the establishment of the Chicano studies department 30 years ago.
Lovato said the minor was relatively easy to establish "because of the Chicano struggles we already had."
Siris Badios, a member of the Central American United Students Assn., was one of the students who renewed the push for the program in 1997. She is pursuing a minor in the new program.
"I wanted to go to college in a place to help me understand what had happened in El Salvador," said Badios, 20.
When she was 5, Badios said, she hid inside a spare tire well in a car trunk and was smuggled across the border to join her parents in the U.S. But three years later her mother had to return to El Salvador to obtain her U.S. residency card and was afraid to leave her child behind in Watts.
"There was a shooting at my house and I witnessed it," Badios said.
When the mother and daughter tried to return to the U.S., officials blocked the girl's entry because she lacked proper documentation. Badios was forced to spend several months in El Salvador with an aunt during the height of the civil war.
She recalled a time when government troops pulled her family out of their house to make them watch as dead bodies were paraded.
"There was a woman with no eyes," Badios said. "They told us we would end up like that if we helped the rebels."
Until this year, when she started taking Central American studies courses, Badios said she knew little about the history of her country. Her parents, traumatized by their experiences, barely speak of their lives there, Badios said.
"I am ignorant of my roots," she said. "But I am hungry to understand my heritage."