University of California Students Tell Us the Importance of Hispanic Heritage Month

August 30, 2023
Photo of Diana Valladares (2021 alumna of UC Merced) and Danny Cruz (rising senior UC Santa Cruz)
Photo of Diana Valladares (2021 alumna of UC Merced) sitting on a park bench and Danny Cruz (rising senior UC Santa Cruz) after finding a banana slug on the way to the UC Santa Cruz vivarium.

This incoming class of freshmen is the largest number of California residents ever admitted into the University of California. And the largest group represented are Latine students making up 37.6% of incoming students. This record-breaking year of applications and enrollment among Hispanic students is particularly important given the University’s commitment to the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) initiative that strives to ensure the UC community represents the demographics of California, which has 40.3% of people who identify as Hispanic/Latine. It’s with these in mind that makes celebrations of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month so exciting. We feel especially inspired by the University of California’s Hispanic and Latine students who have committed to global health.

For students like Diana Valladares (2021 alumna of UC Merced) and Danny Cruz (rising senior UC Santa Cruz)—who are advisees of new advisor council members, Dalia Magaña and Valerie Cortez—Hispanic Heritage Month is another opportunity to both celebrate and share their culture with the larger UC community. Both as first-generation college students whose parents emigrated from Mexico, attending a UC was an incredibly big deal for both Valladares and Cruz.

Cruz, who is starting his senior year as a biomolecular engineering major at UC Santa Cruz says his parents and the values they have instilled in him are an essential part of how far he has come and where he intends to go. “My parents are field workers, they emphasized this idea of hard work,” he says. “Going to a UC was that initial step moving outside of my small town [Colusa, CA], an agricultural town, and gaining this new perspective.”

Valladares–who graduated from UC Merced in 2021 with a degree in psychology and will be starting a master’s in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in the Fall–knew the moment she stepped on the UC Merced campus that she was home. “I’m really proud to say that I’m a first-generation Latina and graduated from a UC school,” she says.

For both Cruz and Valladares, their culture has shaped who they are and their academic trajectory. “There’s a saying, hecha le ganas–give it effort,” says Cruz. “In any Hispanic household, they know what that means. That’s the core of what’s pushed me here: Keep trying, keep pushing forward, give it an attempt no matter what.”

Valladares’ future work as a therapist is directly related to her Latina identity. “Being from a family of immigrants, I’ve seen a lot,” she says. “I’ve seen how my extended family has dealt with issues such as immigration and [living] in poverty, with drug and alcohol addiction. I thought, ‘why is nobody addressing this?’” As such, she wants to be a part of bridging the gap in Latine mental health providers that will not only provide services for her community, but also be an advocate for quality mental health for the Hispanic community.

Both Valladares and Cruz believe in the value of Hispanic Heritage Month because it offers an opportunity to expand the sharing of their cultures with other communities.

“I think the biggest part is acknowledging our presence,” says Cruz. “It’s the idea that we are here and we’re visible and we have this presence in science and that we’re not just this addition, but we’re part of the scientific community and the greater academic community.” This is especially important for Cruz who is pursuing the laboratory sciences because representation within STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields show potential Latine scientists that they are wanted, they are needed, and they are valued in the field. He has also received mentorship and support from UCSC’s STEM Diversity Research Program to help advance his career in the sciences. “I think for a lot of people, we tend to look at these like visibility months, and we just glance at it,” he says. “I wish people knew that we're underrepresented for a reason. And I think that that's the major part is that acknowledgment and I wish more people would take a look at why the systemic issues that create underrepresentation.”

“Hispanic Heritage means being proud of who you are,” says Valladares. She credits her parents, especially her father who passed away when she was a junior at UC Merced, for instilling this value in her and she sees the importance of having a month that really celebrates her Hispanic identity. “Embracing who you are as Latino/Latina and realizing that there’s greatness in where we come from and who we are.”

Both Cruz and Valladares have found mentorship amongst Latine faculty mentors on campus including with the UCGHI’s newest Advisory Council members, Valerie Cortez and Dalia Magaña (who you can learn about here). “I’ve grown to spot Hispanic people in the faculty and the graduate programs and those are people who I can turn to for support,” says Cruz. “People like Valerie Cortez have been amazing. They provide that solidarity.”

Continuing onto graduate school is in both Cruz and Valladares’ future. Valladares enters the counseling psychology program at Santa Clara University with an emphasis on Latine therapy and Cruz will eventually go on to pursue a doctoral degree after he graduates from UCSC in 2024.

With the historic numbers of Hispanic students entering the UCs this year, Valladares and Cruz have advice:

“You don’t have to feel held back by others and how far they’ve gone. Follow your desires and your dedication,” says Cruz.

Valladares says: “Don’t be afraid to be who you are and don’t be afraid to ask questions. As a first-generation student, I’ve had to learn everything on my own, but I’ve learned, it’s okay to ask for help.”