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Making Space for Community and Representation, UC Berkeley Students Create Oaxacan Seminar

OaxaCal's logo designed by Pavel Acevedo./Courtesy of OaxaCal's Instagram page (

By Cheyenne Tex

Note: Quotes slightly edited for readability.

Being the first seminar of its kind at UC Berkeley, OaxaCal commenced at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester featuring a learning environment and community space that prioritizes and centers Oaxacan students at Cal. The seminar held its first session on January 29, 2021 and will continue for the remainder of the semester every Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Two UC Berkeley students, Celeste Rojas and Manuel Morales, teamed up as co-directors to create OaxaCal. The seminar name was inspired by the growing term, OaxaCalifornia--this term refers to the large Oaxacan population in California as well as its imagined community, according to the Museum of Latin American Art.

Rojas and Morales started working on logistics for OaxaCal in March 2020 and continued this process through the Summer and Fall months of 2020. The co-directors developed a syllabus that covers topics including food, music, spiritual practices, activism in Oaxaca, and OaxaCalifornia.

“I really want it to be not just necessarily a class, but a space for us to just learn more about our region and about how to redefine ourselves in the United States and how to continue to preserve for generations to come,” Rojas said. “But collectively finding those answers to our identity and just figuring it out as we have these conversations.”

Rojas said they will explore content about the nine regions of Oaxaca because there are a multitude of Indigenous languages, dialects, and groups in these regions.--Rojas said, for example, both her and Morales are Zapotec yet speak different variants of the language. Overall, they hope that OaxaCal is a space for Oaxacan students to explore their identity formation and dialogue about intersecting facets of their existence.

The co-directors met in their freshman year of college in the Casa Magdalena Mora Theme Program, Chicanx and Latinx themed housing at UC Berkeley. Through this friendship, they found that both grew up in Los Angeles as Oaxacan identifying people, desired to see more Oaxacan representation at Cal, and wanted a community with other Oaxacan students.

“My first year at UC Berkeley, I was at Casa Mora, a Latinx-themed housing at UC Berkeley. Going through that process with Celeste was very eye-opening. She was just as passionate about her roots as I was. And, being in conservative Orange County [where Morales grew up], you don’t see a lot of that,” Morales said. “A lot of my classmates in high school didn’t identify like I did in terms of the Indigeneity that I carry. So, it was at the university level that I really got to see that through real life students. I think that’s why we [Rojas and Morales] were like, ‘You know what? We have to do something with this passion. Let’s redirect this energy into something that can benefit a lot of students here at Cal.’”

The co-directors collaborated with Chicanx Latinx Student Development (CLSD), an office dedicated to the academic experience and wellness of Chicanx and Latinx students at Cal, to make OaxaCal an official seminar offered through the Ehtnic Studies department, specifically in the Chicana/o and Latina/o studies department, at UC Berkeley.

Throughout the developing stages of starting OaxaCal, Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, director of the CLSD, provided guidance, connections, and assistance to Rojas and Morales. As someone who is both a community member and works for the university, Gallegos-Diaz recognizes that there is a lack of movement and support from the university’s administration concerning Indigeneity. Gallegos-Diaz hopes to continue to raise issues to the university regarding Indigenous communities as well as help foster the growth of programming dedicated to Indigenous students like OaxaCal.

“...The administration never thinks about these issues, you know, I mean they say they do about being marginalized, underrepresented…[W]hen we’re actually talking about various differences, even within our students around Indigeneity and being Indigenous, you know, that has a huge impact on the whole sense of belonging and building community and so where you feel comfortable with,

...[H]ow do we have the students as Oaxacan students maintain their identity and their own sanity and their own culture in a very toxic environment such as higher education? Because it’s very hierarchical, it’s very bureaucratic, you know, it’s not a collective space. It’s very individualistic. So, for me, as someone who works for the institution, not only checking privilege and my power; but, how am I helping students move along in their own development and in their own vision of what they want of the world, right? So, yeah, for me it’s exciting, I’m happy to help,” Gallegos-Diaz said.

In an interview, Morales expounded on the struggles he faces holding multiple identities including being Oaxacan and American among others. Morales has and still continues to figure out how to navigate the combination of his realities and understands that other Oaxacan students may have similar experiences. His life experiences helped him to inform the way OaxaCal might also work as space for students to not only learn about Oaxaca but also a space for students to find ways to navigate their identities as Oaxacan as well as other intersecting identities.

“...I carry an identity that both, I consider myself Mexican-American, Chicano, all of that. But sometimes I feel that when I do go to Oaxaca, I’m not accepted because I have this privileged lifestyle. I’m passionate about Oaxaca, and I love my culture but sometimes family members over there don’t see me as Oaxacan and they’ll downgrade my identity,” Morales said. “...I think this struggle inside of me, this inner conflict can be damaging to me. So, to see in this space [OaxaCal], a mixture of both identities, I’m just so happy... I’m excited to see what struggles students have and what we can talk through, what I can relate to.”

Rojas and Morales said, at first, they both weren’t sure if people would understand their intentions with OaxaCal. Perhaps, they pondered, there were not enough Oaxacan students at Cal to hold a seminar, or folx would find the new seminar exclusionary, or that they would receive criticism from other parts of the Latinx community.

In the end, they said they were both eager to make an announcement about the new seminar on social media. Rojas said after they released the first announcement in October 2020, they received great support and feedback from the community including Oaxacan alumni from Cal. Morales said some alumni even purported that they wished they had a seminar like this while attending UC Berkeley.

Gallegos-Diaz, in a phone interview, talked about another Oaxacan student group that tried to develop years ago--the group met twice and ended there. Albeit, Morales said he is ready to carry the torch forward following in the footsteps of the previous group.

For future matters, Morales and Rojas want to see OaxaCal be a lasting space at UC Berkeley. Rojas specifically hopes to reach out to high school students or see chapters of OaxaCal at other UC campuses. Morales spoke about potentially having conversations with the broader Latinx community regarding Indigeneity.

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