A Place of Belonging

Once a child immigrant, Susana Rivera-Mills’ past became her future

A mural in downtown Independence depicts the historical context of the community where Susana Rivera-Mills is studying Latino language and culture. (Photo: Frank Miller)

Her childhood comes back to her in fragments, like a half-forgotten dream. Treasured moments of comfort and love live in her memory alongside terrifying flashes of violence and hate. She was 8 when the civil war began stirring in the streets of El Salvador. As the conflict grew, it became an ever-present menace to the simple moments of ordinary life — moments like watching her mother press her uniform (a light-blue jumper and white blouse) so it would pass the nuns’ inspection at school. Playing with her rag doll, Esther, named for the grandmother who had sewn it with her own hands. Listening to her grandfather’s stories of a time when men wore suits and ties and tipped their hats to the ladies.

It was tragic enough that Susana’s girlhood was visited by war. It was frightening enough to flee her hometown of San Salvador on a dark night bundled in the backseat of the family Fiat with her little brother Fabio. And yet, as improbable as it seems, the hardest part was still ahead.

San Francisco, where the family took refuge with an aunt, seemed cold and impersonal. The glass-and-steel towers, frenzied highways and constant din made her homesick for San Salvador’s graceful 17th-century architecture, open-air patios and vendors selling tortillas and balloons along tree-lined avenues. The food affronted her palate: How could she stand to eat frozen potpies or peanut butter from a jar when she had so often dined on chile rellenos and plucked sun-ripened marañones right off the tree? Most jarring was the language she could neither speak nor understand. She mourned for her native Spanish.

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She didn’t know it then — after all, she was only 12 — but her painful struggle to find footing in a strange land would become the cornerstone of her career. Today, Susana Rivera-Mills’ mission can be distilled into one driving idea: to create a place of belonging for Latinos in America. “Because of my own experience, I’m driven by a need to create a safe space where people can see themselves, where people can hear somebody saying, ‘You’re not alone,’” she says.

As associate dean of Oregon State’s College of Liberal Arts and founding director of the university’s new Center for Latino/Latina Studies and Engagement, CL@SE (pronounced claw-SAY), the immigrant who once struggled for identity uses the tools of social science to study the challenges faced by other Spanish-speaking immigrants and their descendants. From her platform as a professor of Spanish linguistics, she enlightens and inspires new generations of Latinos and Latinas. And, with her passion for advocacy, she has helped engage and empower communities from the American Southwest to the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s research, it’s teaching, it’s advocating, it’s learning,” she says. “I can’t separate them.”

Battles Within and Without

How do you understand war when you’re 8 years old? How do you make sense of angry demonstrations in the public square? Of slogans and placards demanding political reform? Of escalating threats and intimidation, gunfire in the streets, rumors of torture, neighbors disappearing without a trace?

When the pop-pop-pop of gunfire resounded too close to Susana’s school, the nuns would lead the girls into the chapel to wait out the violence. She felt safe in the sanctuary, where candlelight flickered warmly against wooden panels painted with images of Christ. The girls prayed and did their homework, sometimes waiting for hours before it was safe to go home.

But as the years unfolded, even home wasn’t safe. Armed men were extorting money from business owners like her father, who had a trucking company. It was just a matter of time, the family knew, before that threat would come knocking at their door just as it had for her uncle. A high-ranking official in San Salvador, he was assassinated on his doorstep as his wife and children stood helplessly by. Then there was the night Susana woke to the sound of windows shattering and bullets rattling on the roof. She remembers her mother’s screams. Susana cried “Mama!” as her mother pulled her from her warm covers and pushed her under the bed before sliding in close beside her. “Shhh, shhh, you must be very quiet,” her mother shushed her wailing child as bullets ripped through the house.

Amidst the violence, her father’s business foundered. Finally, he confronted the only option he had: He must get his family out of El Salvador. Susana, by then 12 years old, packed what she could fit into her small suitcase. The doll Esther and a teddy bear named Eddie could come, her mother said. The other toys must stay behind. Susana’s grandfather cried as she hugged him goodbye. Three decades have passed, yet her throat still tightens as she recalls the stoic, dignified man she called PapaGerardo weeping while his daughter, son-in-law and two youngest grandchildren loaded up the Fiat and motored into the night. The long-ago leave-taking rushes back to her in all its pathos. She pauses in her story, turning to look out her window in Gilkey Hall until she regains her composure. “I never saw PapaGerardo again.”

Betwixt and Between

The family thought their exile to the United States would be temporary, that any day the war would end and they could steer the Fiat toward home. Instead, things got worse in El Salvador. After a year, Susana’s parents let go of their dream to go back. They liquidated their remaining assets and moved north to Eureka, 100 miles south of the Oregon border. They took minimum-wage jobs at a plant nursery. Susana went to school. Summers, she worked in the nursery alongside her mom and dad.

Within six months, she was speaking English (“It just happened, sort of like magic,” she recalls) and was placed in the talented-and-gifted program. But the stress of the new life that had been thrust upon her — of being the only Latina in her class, of being responsible for little Fabio while her parents worked long hours at the nursery, of being the family translator in business transactions — filled her with resentment as she entered adolescence. Her parents may have given up on going back to El Salvador, but Susana never had. Not a day had passed during those seven years in California when she hadn’t pictured the house where she grew up, its low stone wall enclosing tropical plants and flowering trees noisy with parrots and songbirds. Hundreds of times she had imagined herself eating breakfast on the patio, sharing the just-picked fruit with the family’s pet turtles, iguanas and rabbits. She imagined, in short, slipping seamlessly back into her old life as a Salvadoran.

Over and over she begged her parents to let her go back. Fearful for her safety, they always said no.

Then in 1991 the war ended. A peace agreement was signed. Brushing off her parents’ worries, 19-year-old Susana wasted no time. She used money she had earned as a legal assistant for the State of California to buy a ticket to San Salvador.

Her older brother met her at the family home. Nothing looked the way she remembered it. The 3-foot wall was now a 12-foot fortress. The house seemed to have shrunk. Her old bedroom felt tiny and unfamiliar. Her brother took her to a musty room in the back of the house where her toys had been stored. Expectantly, she lifted the lid on a cardboard box. A puff of dust and mold choked her. Cockroaches skittered away from the light. She jumped back, shuddering. Her long-imagined homecoming was crumbling like a piece of newsprint left too long in the sun.

“That was probably the most transformative experience for me,” she says. “I thought I would be returning to what I remembered from my childhood. But instead, it was like hitting a brick wall. All of a sudden, the person I thought I was really wasn’t me.

“I realized that I wasn’t 100 percent Salvadoran. At the same time, I wasn’t an American from the U.S. — I wouldn’t be accepted there 100 percent. I would have to create a hybrid identity that made sense to me. I returned to the U.S., but I returned with a whole new perspective.”

A Poet’s Voice

In search of that elusive self, she went off to the University of Iowa to study business and physics. “I thought I wanted to work at NASA,” she says, smiling a little sheepishly. She soon switched her major to Spanish. But even as she started working on her master’s, she remained uncertain about her path. That changed in one serendipitous instant. A professor offered his students extra credit to attend a bilingual poetry reading on campus. Susana, running late, half-jogged to the small auditorium. She wedged herself into a standing-room-only audience at the back of the room. What happened next shifted the fault lines of her inner landscape. As the poet’s voice resounded through the crowd, Susana realized she was hearing the words of an immigrant like herself. The poet’s story was Susana’s story — a story that, until that moment, she thought no one else had lived. She started to sob.

After the reading, a teary-eyed Susana walked up to the poet. “You have no idea what you have just done for me,” she said. “This is the very first time I’ve heard anybody else talk about what I’ve been experiencing all these years. I had no idea anybody else knew what it felt like.”

As if the poet had passed her a baton, she ran full-speed ahead with her newfound insight. She earned a Ph.D. in Romance languages at the University of New Mexico, focusing on sociolinguistics — the study of the relationship between language and society. Step 1 in all her sociolinguistic studies is connecting with Latino communities wherever she goes.

“What motivates my research,” she says, “is my drive to understand communities of Spanish-speaking people — how do these communities navigate issues of identity, language loss, access to education? How do they create a place of belonging for themselves?”

One Response to “A Place of Belonging”

  1. Joel C says:

    Thanks for sharing this touching story, both to Susanna and to Terra.

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