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.
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.”
Read more of Rivera-Mills' story in the winter issue of Terra Magazine.