Norma Itzel Salas

Photography by  Diana Ascarrunz

Photography by Diana Ascarrunz

Tell us about yourself. Include where you’re from, what you do, how you’re thriving, and anything else everyone should know about you.

I am a social work student at St. Edward’s University. I am from the Rio Grande Valley—the tip of Texas along the Mexican border. I grew up with a deeply rooted Mexican culture, but left home in order to pursue my higher education. I learned English in school and still struggle with it from time to time. Despite people thinking I couldn’t really get anywhere because of my language barrier, I have slowly been proving them wrong by getting on track to graduate two years early with a Bachelor of Social Work degree in December 2017.

My goals after that are to pursue my Master’s and Ph.D in social policy and political science, and I hope to become a Senator. Education has always been the most important thing in my family, and as a first generation Latina, I am proving to my family that leaving their lives in Mexico behind and starting anew was worth it.

How do you identify culturally?

I am Mexican American, first generation. I have always had an internalized conflict with the cultural clash I constantly face because of my cultural identity. I grew up as Mexican as it can get, but I learned to adopt American values as I grew up because I knew it was necessary for survival here in the United States. I am proud to be a little bit of both. The best way I can describe this is “ni de aquí, ni de allá.”

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What inspires you and who do you look up to?

As cliché as this sounds, I look up to my father. He let go of his life in Mexico as a professor so that we could have a chance at a better life. He went from success to becoming a dishwasher here in the United States. I have seen the toll it takes on him, but nothing makes me happier than to make him proud and show him it’s all worthwhile. My father was rebellious back in his day and was always involved with social justice issues; he’s noticed that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. With the recent protests I have been attending, I would never tell him what I was doing. When I finally had the courage to tell him I was out there fighting for our rights, it brought tears to his eyes. He’s my inspiration because it wasn’t until recently that I found out where my drive for equal rights and social justice comes from. Like father, like daughter. Every moment I am out there, my family is the priority on my mind. Through my education I hope to fight back in ways stronger than I would have ever expected.

How has your Latinx background informed your decisions, successes, failures? What do you do when things go wrong?

My Latinx background has influenced all of my decisions. I am a proud Latina woman fighting for social justice because I know what it’s like to be on the shit end of the stick. Becoming aware of all of the issues our community faces has pushed me to work harder and find ways to help. I love my culture—I am not ashamed of being open about it and sharing it with the world. Recently, I have been awarded two scholarships to do research in regard to the immigrant community, and am working hard with my peers to prep for a meeting with a Texas Representative at the Capitol to talk about safety for immigrant families. My culture is my drive.

My brother once said (and it cracks me up to this day), “Who would’ve guessed the three little brown kids from Harlingen, Texas, the poorest city in America, would be a nurse, a successful social worker, and the little one graduating two years early?” And he’s right—but there can and will be more children like us who succeed too.

When things go wrong and I’m exhausted from fighting back, I call my mom. I tell her about how tired I am of facing discrimination, stereotypes, and racism, and how I don’t know how the hell I can keep fighting something that is way bigger than I am. She usually listens and tells me that everyone who has ever created change started with being exhausted and tired, and that if I’m exhausted and tired, I am clearly doing something right. By the next day, I’m back at it. :)

Your best piece of advice for anyone who’s struggling?

I’m not going to say it gets better, because that makes you look so much into the future that you forget to live in the present. Take it day by day. Instead of saying “it gets better,” say “it is better.” I always think about it like this: we’ve already been through the worst moments of our life, and we’ve gotten through them. Keep fighting the good fight.

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Future goals and aspirations?

After I graduate from St. Edward’s University, I would like to enter graduate school for a joint Master’s degree in Social Work and Political Science, and pursue a Ph.D in Social Policy. My ultimate goal, however, is to become a United States Senator and use that privilege to help out and defend my community in the best way that I can: changing the system one degree at a time.

One thing people should know about the Latinx community?

The Latinx community is a beautiful community full of culture, love, and strength. Historically, we have always been treated unfairly, but our culture has always been admired. It is time to show, especially now, that we are all family and our culture revolves around unity and love.

What is your favorite Latinx owned business in Austin? Why are they your favorite?

Hay Elotes is hands down my favorite Latinx owned business in Austin. It reminds me of home. Every time I go there I feel as if I’m back in Mexico with my family. They have brought my home to me over here in Austin. When I’m there I feel I can fully be myself and unwind. When my family visits, we make sure to always go! I highly recommend it.

Where can people find you on the internet?

Facebook, mostly. :)

Norma Itzel Salas

Latinx Voices is an online photo and interview series spotlighting Latinx peoples in our communities. We want to amplify those voices–reminding people that we are not only surviving, but thriving.