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Central American history collage

Connecting our past to the present


Central American Family History 
Unearthing Our Narratives through A Critical Lens


Workshop Summary: Drawing inspiration from our family stories and ancestors, this Ethnic Studies-centered program begins with a talk about the role family history can play in teaching Ethnic Studies by connecting our past to the present. Participants will learn how to use engaging online tools and resources to customize a family history project that best suits their classroom needs. Together, a general lesson plan will be constructed using the tools and resources discussed. The ultimate goal is for students to situate their ancestors and themselves within a larger context and as part of the American narrative. 

Course Description: This Family History Workshop is a comprehensive program designed to equip participants with the knowledge, skills, and resources to explore, analyze, and conceptualize Central American family history projects through a critical lens, often drawing from an ethnic studies framework. Through a combination of theoretical frameworks and practical research methods, participants will practice identifying power dynamics, structures, and historical contexts that shape and influence family narratives and identities, in order to communicate the historical struggles, resilience, and contributions of Central American communities. This workshop aims to empower participants with genealogical skill sets to support their students in reclaiming and celebrating Central American family histories while critically engaging with the broader social context.

Course Objectives:

1. Develop an understanding of Ethnic Studies and its application in exploring Central American family histories.

2. Explore the ways in which race, ethnicity, and social dynamics shape the narratives and identities within Central American families.

3. Learn techniques for researching and documenting Central American family histories, including archival research, oral history interviews, and genealogical resources.

4. Examine the role of memory, storytelling, and collective memory in preserving and transmitting family histories.

5. Critically assess the impact of historical narratives on present-day social, political, and economic disparities in Central American communities.

6. Foster a sense of self-empowerment through the ability to offer cultural and community pride through the reclaiming and celebrating of Central American family histories.

Course Outline:

Introduction to Ethnic Studies + Critical Family History

- Overview of Ethnic Studies and its relevance to Central American family history 

- Exploring family as a site of historical memory and identity formation

- Analyzing the impact of historical narratives on contemporary Central American communities

- Examining social, political, and economic disparities through a critical race lens

- Identifying opportunities for activism, advocacy, and social change


My Central American Family History

- Preparation: Introduction to gathering information and genealogical research methods 

- Interview: Conducting oral history interviews to better understand a specific time and place 

- Research: historical events, genealogy databases, google

- Action: Accessing and utilizing archival materials, census records, and immigration records


Memory, Storytelling, and Collective History: LESSON #1

- Family tree + Oral History to begin a Family History Narrative

- Understanding the role of memory and storytelling in preserving family histories

- Techniques for investigating, documenting, and sharing family narratives

- Open discussion on collective memory and community-based approaches to history preservation


Unearthing Hidden Narratives: LESSON #2

- Census: Identifying and challenging historical silences, erasures, and distortions

- Engaging with alternative sources of historical knowledge, including art, music, and literature

- Examining gender, class, and intersectional dynamics within Central American communities

- Discuss the silences and erasure of our history


Reclaiming and Celebrating Central American Family Histories

- Empowering individuals and communities through the celebration of cultural heritage

- Creating “space” for sharing and amplifying Central American narratives

- Developing personal projects that honor and reclaim family histories

Suggested readings:


Suggested online resources:

Central American history collage


Claudia A. Portillo  –  I am a native Angeleno, Salvadoran-American, and a graduate from Cal State Los Angeles with a Master's degree in Latin American Studies.   I graduated from San Francisco State University with a Bachelor's in Business Administration in 2004, and I have In 2020, I received a certificate in digitization skills for Libraries and Cultural Heritage Institutions.


My research interests include Central American history and culture, diaspora and migration, as well as the recovery of historical memory, archival documentation, and family histories. My thesis, “Silencing Memories: The Workers' Movement for Democracy in El Salvador, 1932–1963,” is published on Proquest. I recently authored a piece for an anthology edited by Karina Alma (UCLA), Alicia Ivonne Estrada (CSUN), Ester E. Hernández (CSULA), and Yajaira Padilla (UA) about forced migration against women, examining the intersection of gender and trauma based on my grandmother's testimony.

I am a co-founder of the Central American Historical and Ancestral Society of California (CAHAAS), where we promote an understanding of Central America's rich and dynamic history, culture, and the contributions our people have made within and beyond its national borders through an easily accessible digital platform where stories, art, history, and culture can be shared with all.

Most of my interests and research have been published on the CAHAAS blog and story page. Much of this writing is centered on unknown and forgotten histories of the diaspora in California. The 100 Central American Historical Biographies Project was started to collectively build a library of biographies that reflect our reality and bring value to our stories. For example, we shine a light on the contributions of Carlos A. Pineda, the 1930s Salvadoran ballet dancer with the San Francisco Ballet Company, or the research that is in progress on USCT from Central America in Lincoln’s Army. We have also developed several digital photo and object exhibitions accessible on the CAHAAS collection page. Here, there is a collaboration with Salvadoran photographer Roxanne Q. Chartouni and the History Made By Us 2022 Civic Season campaign where we featured her photo essay to help advocate Juneteenth remembrance and reflection. 


To continue amplifying our Central American voices and challenge the dominant narrative, I have shared family stories with other organizations, like Raíces Cultural Center and Ancestry, who featured my Tia Amalia, a nurse in San Francisco during WWII. 

family sitting and talking about ancestry with large vintage pictures of family members


family history for Ethnic Studies curricula


"I'm not your first Ethnic Studies teacher [though]," she would say. "Families, relatives, [and] ancestors" have all been teachers already. "Every single one of [you] has been doing Ethnic Studies before stepping into [this] space."

Jackie Rogers, an Ethnic Studies teacher at Capuchino High School.

  • giving value to her students' families and their stories

  • learning centered on a student's reality

  • value in their lived experience

  • visibility


"Ethnic studies includes units of study, courses, or programs that are centered on the knowledge and perspectives of an ethnic or racial group, reflecting narratives and points of view rooted in that group's lived experiences and intellectual scholarship. Ethnic studies arose as a counter to the traditional mainstream curriculum."

Christine E. Sleeter, PhD. The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies, (National Education Association, 2011).

  • Moving away from a eurocentric mainstream curriculum

  • Critical pedagogy - "collective, sustained, mobilized action to transform inequitable social structures."                                                                                --Recentering Action in Critical Consciousness

  • "Storytelling prepares students for leadership by giving them the skills to communicate with wide and diverse audiences effectively." 

                                    -- Alexandro Gradillo, CSUF Professor of Chicana/o Studies 


Colonization/Dehumanization: While peoples have relocated and migrated throughout human history and conflict and conquest have always occurred, the Western World took conquest, beginning in 1492 CE to a global level, and in the process, created new social constructions of race and racial hierarchy, all of which continue to have reverberations at global as well as local levels. 

Christine E. Sleeter, PhD. 

  • "Ethnic Studies offers oppositional stories and counter-narratives, naming, speaking to, and resisting the hegemonic condition."   


  • Our stories are missing from the American narrative.

  • Carve our own paths and ways to dismantle oppressive social systems.


A ninth-grade ethnic studies class has a remarkably prolonged and strong positive impact on students, increasing their overall engagement in school, probability of graduating and likelihood of enrolling in college, according to a new study of a curriculum offered at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Stanford University

  • Critical Action is linked to developmental outcomes in youth

    • "greater career expectancies in late adolescence."​

    • "voting among racially diverse poor and working-class." 

    • "greater inclusivity of queer identities."​​

                                          -- Recentering Action in Critical Consciousness




  • Formulate a central question or issue

  • Consider a release or consent form before starting a project. 

  • Build the questionnaire around that individual with open-ended questions. Be sure the list captures the essential information about the family member. 

  • Often the best way to begin asking questions is by asking about the individual's favorite home cooked-meal or their favorite song and where they first heard it, for example.

  • Schedule the date and time for the interview in a quiet and comfortable setting. 

  • Prepare with more informed questions. Familiarize yourself with the subject in terms of their politics, economy, music, and culture.

  •  Decide if you will be recording the interview, whether audio or video. This can help capture details more easily. Double check it!!


  • If recording, give yourself time before the sit down interview to set up equipment and it's working properly.

  • Bring to interview your questions and begin documenting the answers. Ask follow-up questions for clarification or even elaboration on an interesting topic.

  • Pay attention to visual and verbal cues; take water breaks

  • Allow time for answers outside the specific question. Let the individual’s memory run free.

  • It is okay to stay silent. Let your subject take the lead and you make sure your central question gets addressed.


  • Identify and address the larger social relationships of power, particularly racism, colonization, patriarchy, and/or social class. 

  • Identify the social injustices around race, climate change, and economic disparities that cause immigration from Central America to the US.

  • Examine the social, political, and economic disparities; whose perspective is heard and whose not?

  • What does family history reveal about dealing with racism, oppression, and/or inequalities? Or, what new information did you learn from your interview about challenges they overcame?

  • Were there any differences in lived experience from interviewee compared to your research? Again, whose perspective is heard and whose not?

  • How can you/we dismantle oppressive social systems?


  • Research the history of the time period. Look into the politics, economy, music and culture of the times. 

  • Reflect on erasures in archives and national narratives

  • Use tools like Google, databases, and books

  • Interview other family members


  • How are you going to build on this?

  • Create a group to discuss social and political issues with peers

  • Communicate or negotiate with public officials

  • Mobilize collectively around a community-based issue

  • Coordinate a social media campaign to mobilize like-minded people

  • Explore storytelling, sharing, publishing

  • Create art, music, community, profession
  • Deed of Gift Form for CAHAAS Digital Archive. Contact:


Jorge and  Letty in San Francisco 1965

Watch Video

Why did my grandparents immigrate to the United States?


Many years ago, I began filling out the names on my family tree and asking questions about my family history. 

  • Family tree can take any shape.

  • This activity is a process, a LONG process.

  • I didn't have a guide when I started. I was just curious.



In 2009, on one of the many times I worked with my grandmother on the family tree, a remarkable revelation occurred around the kitchen table. 

  • I may have been too young to understand the whole story

  • Persistence and patience is necessary



Fortunately, a wonderful online research tool—GOOGLE—allowed me to enter their names in a BOOLEAN search format. To my amazement, I got two hits. 

  • Google names and events, visit libraries, archives, books

  • Dates and names, organize and make sense out of the information

  • Put all the information into historical context


Because I wanted to know more about the time my great-grandfather was active

  • I learned about the 1932 Massacre

  • I learned about Miguel Marmol's testimony - Roque Dalton's book

  • I learned more about the CIA and Guatemala's President Arbenz

  • I learned more about the founding of the FMLN

  • I learned more about U.S. foreign policy

My Grandmother's Oral History 

  • I learned about generational trauma

  • I learned about 1960's Unions in El Salvador

  • I learned to better understand her immigration story 

  • I learned about 1963 in San Francisco; the Black & Brown Power Movements


  • PUBLISHED on Proquest so its available for free.

  • Inspired me to BUILD

  • WRITE articles - Anthology book with academics 

  • Incorporating the story in this WORKSHOP





  • Students will design, conduct, investigate, and analyze an oral history interview with a family member to build a family tree and capture highlights of their life story to ultimately enhance their understanding of their family’s history within a larger historical context. Student and family members should strive to capture stories/information of lasting importance or value for future generations–stories of resilience and overcoming struggles.








  • Students will investigate and analyze official documents of Central Americans in the past to build biographical profiles and ultimately enhance their understanding of these people's lives within a larger historical context. Student and educators should strive to capture stories/information of lasting importance or value for future generations–stories of resilience and overcoming struggles.




Carlos Antonio Pineda portrait
muster rolls for civil war soldiers
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