Constanza Salinas displays a family photo from her home in Chile in front of her college sorority house on Chestnut Street.
International student strengthens ties to heritage
Though rooted deeply in her Hispanic culture, Chilean-born Constanza Salinas '14 is quick to call the close-knit community of Washington & Jefferson College her home. Spotted cheering in the stands of Cameron Stadium at Presidents football games or spending time with her Kappa Kappa Gamma sisters at their Chestnut Street sorority house, Salinas—known as “Coni” to her friends—is well acclimated to the daily life of a western Pennsylvania college student.
It was not until she took a class on Latino and Machismo stereotypes the fall semester of her sophomore year that the psychology major began to more closely examine the concept of identity and how it relates to her Hispanic heritage, especially in the U.S. “I just thought the class was really interesting,” she said. “I never thought about how identity is something very subjective and I never thought about it changing in different parts of the country.”
Using several ideas presented in the class, Salinas applied for a Magellan Project so she could travel to three U.S. cities—New York City, Los Angeles and Houston—and study how Hispanics viewed themselves in each region.
While Salinas is accustomed to traveling—she grew up in New Jersey, spent summers visiting relatives in Chile and Costa Rica, and went to high school in Spain—she admits that planning the month-long trip was not easy. Leaving much of her schedule to chance, Salinas began by visiting libraries in each city and researching areas with large Hispanic populations. She then visited the communities to meet with locals, choosing “people who seemed like they were willing to talk.”
“In Los Angeles, I went to an area with Hispanic people everywhere,” she said. “There were street vendors selling ice and syrup, a very Mexican tradition, so I went over and talked to them. Then I talked to a guy selling avocados out of the back of his truck. I approached people who seemed interesting and had curious jobs.”
"I approached people who seemed interesting and had curious jobs.”
Salinas quickly found that not everyone was willing to speak with her, particularly immigrants who did not understand what she was trying to accomplish with her project. “They didn’t know who I was. They didn’t want to tell anything about themselves,” she said. “They were there; they were done; they didn’t want to look back.”
In a Colombian café outside New York City, Salinas met with a Dominican man who was more willing to share. “He sat there and told me his whole life story about how he came here—his entire trip,” she said. “It was exactly the kind of story I wanted.”
The difficulties she faced in finding willing participants led her to discover her passion for something else—research. “My main purpose was to do personal interviews with a bunch of different people, but I ended up liking research a lot more,” said Salinas, who arranged a visit with Agua Marketing, a Houston-based market research and consulting company that focuses on the Hispanic population.
While there, she met with Manuel Delgado, the company’s CEO, who gave Salinas helpful suggestions of which areas in Houston to visit and showed her a presentation for prospective clients. He since has offered her a summer internship with his firm, an opportunity that Salinas hopes will help her decide if she should pursue research as a career.
“You make this whole project yourself. It really distinguishes you as a person."
A junior at W&J, she already is incorporating what she learned from her Magellan Project into her studies. In the fall, she returned to a New York City library she visited during her trip to research a paper on Puerto Rican murals. “It’s been interesting to be able to use what I learned and put a different spin on it,” she said.
Salinas—who appreciated how the Magellan Project allowed her to apply classroom theories to the outside world and, ultimately, to her own heritage—recalled a discussion in her Latino stereotypes class about the ambiguity of identity. “It was interesting, but I didn’t really know how true it was until now,” she said, adding that the most rewarding aspect of her journey was the chance it gave her to grow personally. “You make this whole project yourself. It really distinguishes you as a person because, in the end, it’s all about you.”
-Georgia Schumacher '10