Student profile: Henry Sales

Retaining and strengthening Mam language, Mayan culture

doctoral student henry sales looking at camera wearing clothing of his Guatemalan Mayan culture

Henry Sales, Mam Educator: How I Became an Advocate for My Indigenous Community

How I Became an Advocate for My Indigenous Community

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My name is Henry Sales, I was raised in a small town called San Juan Atita, located among the Cuchumatanes mountains in Guatemala. I come from a place where education is not a priority. Indigenous and Latino people are not treated equally. The majority of Indigenous Maya Mam people live in poverty and big dreams tend to vanish.

In 2011, I arrived in Oakland, Calif., and I went straight to Oakland International High School. I remember my first two months, I struggled because I had no idea what they were saying and couldn’t do most of the homework; as a result, I was very frustrated. All I could think of was home and the forest. I used to dream a lot about home and my friends. I suffered a lot from depression and loneliness. I remember the first time that I was being taught in English and I was shaking my head and saying in my mind, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My English teacher translated into Spanish assuming that I’m a Spanish speaker. “Biology es biologia.” In my head I was like, “I don’t know that word either.” People always made the assumptions that I spoke Spanish because I come from a Latin country. I wanted to speak to Mam and it was very hard to find Mam students because there were only a few of us back then.

However, after struggling for a couple of months, in November I dropped out of high school. My parents were very disappointed with me because I was their only hope in the family to get an education and learn English. For me, work was a priority over education. I remember working at construction, sitting down during the break, and in my head I was like, “I don’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life.” After that, on the weekend I was invited to attend a meeting at UC Berkeley to learn about immigrant rights. I saw this guy and he was talking Spanish and English back and forth. I really admired him and I was like, “I wish I could be like him.” When I came back home from work on a Friday night, I saw my mom cooking and I said, “Mother, I’m going back to school on Monday and I promise that I will finish high school and go to UC Berkeley.”

I remember she broke into tears and we started crying together. When my dad came back from work, I gave him the news and he cried, too. He took me to buy new clothes with the money he had earned selling fruits and he was very excited.

I wish I knew my history well when I was in high school and I would have never let people make mockery of our history. One thing that I regret during those years in high school, I wish I would’ve read history books about Indigenous people and our resistance all of these years.

After nine years from graduating high school, including earning my bachelor's degree in business from San Francisco State University, here I am attending UC Berkeley. I am a first-generation college student in the PhD program in the School of Education’s Critical Studies of Race, Class, and Gender program. My interests are Indigenous language revitalization, the cultural and social challenges that Indigenous Mayans students face while living and studying in the Bay Area, and the importance of language and culture in diverse communities in Oakland schools.

Lastly, we are often told that the Maya Mam community is a community based on gangs, violence, illegal immigrants, criminals, dropouts, etc. But it is a community based on a culture, language, diversity, and revolutions that is and will continue to help my fellow wuk’li (community members).

We are the new ancestors for the younger generation that are looking for a way out.