Emma Sepulveda entered the United States after fleeing the 1973 military coup in Chile. Decades later, she directs the Latino Research Center at the University of Nevada, Reno. Student reporter Holly Hutchings recently spoke to her for NPR’s Next Generation Radio Program about her first days in America.
Sitting behind her director's desk in her University of Nevada, Reno, office crammed with books she has written, posters of past campus events and paintings of Latina heroines, Emma Sepulveda leafs through diaries of her first days in the United States after fleeing the 1973 military coup in Chile.
“When I was in Chile, I was the young activist and popular at school. I was funny. I thought I was fairly intelligent. I was an activist. I was a person full of life and full of hope. I wanted to change the world,” she remembers.
But persecution of students, disappearances, and killings of political activists upended her plans of doing so in Chile.
In 1973, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president she supported. Sepulveda fled, first traveling to other Latin American countries on an exploration trip. She toured her beloved continent as a way to close a chapter of her life. She said goodbye to family in Argentina, taking in the splendor of Lake Titicaca and traveled through Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico and Guatemala.
After an arduous journey across many borders, she finally arrived in the United States landing in Los Angeles in June, 1974. Sepulveda describes her memory of her early days in the US as shock. "I crossed the border and it was, like, an immediate change," she said. “I was completely treated differently for the way that I look.” For the first time, she felt like a "woman of color," judged more unfairly than ever before. “In Chile I felt part of a privileged group,” Sepulveda says. “I became an outsider. Somebody they look on with suspicions because I couldn’t express myself.”
Unable to speak English, she found herself aimless and alone. She felt that her sparkly personality that once shined in Santiago was growing dim as she felt the negative judgments from people who demanded to know why she spoke with an accent and others scolded her for not speaking English. She was crushed and feeling a palpable lack of purpose.
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This story was produced during the NPR Next Generation Radio program, in partnership with the Reynolds School of Journalism at UNR and Reno Public Radio.