By Gillian Moran Peréz/LAist

Originally published Aug 19, 2022

In a historic moment for the Central American community, East Los Angeles College announced Friday the start of a new Central American Studies degree program, the first community college in the nation to do so.

Central Americans comprise the second largest ethnic group within the Los Angeles Community College District, behind students who identify as Mexican or Chicano.

Lana Leos is in her second year of college studying to be a nurse at East Los Angeles College (ELAC). She is of Guatemalan and Salvadoran descent. At the press conference, Leos said this project “brings recognition to the many cultures that tend to get lost in the background.”

“What this program will do is actually acknowledge our Central American culture and find a bridge between the many Central American identities that are in our community with the Chicano culture in this community and on this ELAC campus,” Leos said.

In 2021, the California Community Colleges board of governors established a new policy that students will soon need to take at least one ethnic studies course to graduate. ELAC is the only California community college to offer courses such as Central American Literature and the Central American Experience. The new program establishes an Associate of Arts degree in Central American Studies.

While currently housed under the Department of Chicana/o Studies, campus leaders say the goal in the near future is to create a department that will continue to recognize Central American heritage. ELAC officials plan on hiring one full-time tenure track professor as a start.

According to ELAC President Alberto J. Roman, the college anticipates students enrolling from all over California since the program will also be offered online.

Roman became president of ELAC in 2021, and started pushing for conversations with professors and students about such a program, and bringing important voices to the table.

That led him to Jocelyn Duarte, a Chicana/Chicano studies professor, who started teaching the college’s first Central American studies course in 2015. Her parents are from El Salvador and Guatemala, and she said that this move is important for recognizing the local Central American community.

“I think representation matters,” Duarte said. “And I think that in the conversation, in the light of talking about ethnic studies and ethnic studies requirements, it was time for Central Americans to have the space they needed.”

Duarte also is a faculty member of the Department of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge, which is the only university in the nation with such a department. She expressed hope that each school could help the other build a community.

Kenny Renderos is a professor at ELAC who was also invited to be part of the conversation about starting the program. She was born and raised in El Salvador and said that she understands her students’ struggles of being mislabeled as Mexicans. She said this program will help her community step outside of the shadows.

“This is going to grow big,” said Renderos. “This is just the beginning.”

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