By Holly Hutchings
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.
A Difficult Arrival
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.
Later that year, she followed her husband to Reno after he enrolled at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).
The owner of the restaurant, Miguel Rivera, took note of her sadness. He asked her why she cried so much of the time. Sepulveda told him of her insecurities with a new language and about the life of a student activist she left behind in Chile. Rivera then told her believed in her and decided to pay for her to continue her studies at UNR, where she earned a bachelor’s and eventually a master’s degree.
She left Reno in 1981 to pursue a PhD from the University of California at Davis. Once back in Reno, she resolved to continue the advocacy that characterized her life in Chile, but apply it to helping fellow American immigrants. Through more than a dozen books, her poetry and photography, newspaper columns she wrote about Latino issues, a run for the Nevada Senate in 1994, and fighting for diversity at UNR, she has kept engaging and educating others as a public scholar.
In the video above, she reads a poem in Spanish that she wrote about refusing to remain silent. “Sometimes the intimate things can never be expressed in a second language,” Sepulveda says. “Because that’s not who you are. When I write a memoir, when I write anything that is very personal, I just can’t do it in English. In Spanish, it brings my soul out onto the page.”
Sepulveda feels her fight remains crucial in the era of the Trump administration, with new uncertainties and more crackdowns on immigrants occurring. She says she understands now it doesn’t matter where you are fighting from, the important thing she says, is to stay alive and to keep fighting for progress.