James Membreno/ Courier. Karla Cativo reflects on her life on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019 in the Circadian at Pasadena City College.
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When she speaks during a presentation, Karla Cativo leads the audience through an intimate tour of her life, beginning as an undocumented child to become a community organizer, an educator and a cultural ambassador focused on sharing a living history of her Salvadoran heritage with personal details and memories she hopes her listeners can learn from.

“My father was being persecuted by the death squads,” Cativo said. “Had we not left, the three of us would have been dead.”

Cativo spoke to a small audience at PCC’s Circadian on Sept. 26. She gave a glimpse into what it was like when her parents were forced to flee El Salvador’s violence in 1981 as they emigrated to California. She was three months old.

“It’s better for us to be telling our story,” Cativo said in her opening comments. “We continue to show that, despite all the challenges, we will not disappear.”

Cativo is a Latin American scholar, CSUN lecturer and a manager in the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund (SALEF), based in Los Angeles. 

“70% of my cousins do not speak Spanish,” Cativo quipped.

Thirty eight years later, after several visits back to El Salvador throughout her childhood and adulthood, Cativo tapped her extended family’s experience to show how Salvadorans can reframe their past and move forward.

“Their life in El Salvador is a source of sorrow,” Cativo said. “They were exposed to their father beating my grandmother all the time, they were exposed to some violence. But I think we do more harm in forgetting and not talking about it.”

Listeners attentively nodded along as Cativo showed personally significant images from her past. She discussed some major historical events and their effects in El Salvador and on neighboring countries. Natural disasters, political coups, U.S. military activity and high murder rates created similar experiences across Central America.

“We’ve been impacted by so much U.S. intervention that all the [gang] violence is a product of all that,” said Sofia Alvarado, a Latin American studies major with Salvadoran heritage. “We have this kind of revolutionary spirit to us.”

Lux Cervantes, an art major, said her own Mexican heritage influences her work with ceramics and drawing. She decided to attend Cativo’s presentation after her professor for Mexican and Chicano literature, Silvia Toscano, mentioned it in class.

“It was extremely vulnerable to put yourself out there and be so open,” Cervantes said. “The stories she was telling us, so many people can connect to. It was so powerful. It gives me a better understanding of my peers.”

PCC’s Director of Student Equity, Dr. Michaela Mares, organized Cativo’s visit.

“When we have this kind of programming, it’s really about creating that sense of belonging,” Mares said. “It’s also saying to the students who are here, ‘we see you, we want to hear more from you, and we have people here to support you.’”

Alvarado appreciated Cativo’s perspective.

“Events like this are so important because a lot of Central American students’ voices are barely heard sometimes,” Alvarado said. “We get generalized and get called Mexican all the time.” 

Professionally, Cativo will join the Latin Studies program at CSULA next year. She said her personal commitment to advocacy will expand into Mexico. 

“It fills me with a lot of joy and excitement, because I feel like I’m actually educating, and they’re understanding,” Cativo said. “And there is a connection, a peoplehood. It makes us family.”

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