During Hispanic Heritage Month, UCF Today will share some of our students’ and faculty members’ stories and how being Latino has shaped their lives.

Professor MC Santana, UCF’s director of Women and Gender Studies, was spirited away from Cuba when she was only one-year-old.

It was 1965, six years after the Cuban Revolution. Fidel Castro had risen to power, and a wave of disillusioned Cuban immigrants flooded the United States after the government offered asylum to anyone willing to flee.

Her parents, fearing for their daughter’s future, boarded one of Pan Am’s refugee airlifts — the Freedom Flights — to Miami. From there, the family moved to Puerto Rico, where Santana would attend college and later work as a business reporter and photojournalist for many years.

It is this sense of displacement — this multiculturalism forced by the hand of politics — to which Santana credits her sense of activism and global mindset.

“As a refugee, that shapes you and shapes your family experience very, very differently than other people that can just go home any other weekend … that shaped my whole family,” Santana said. “The way my mother cooked, the way we saved money. Everything that we did was because we came to this country with one outfit, one doll, one pair of shoes — I had nothing else.”

Since coming to UCF in 1995 as a journalism instructor at the Nicholson School of Communication, Santana has focused her energy and research on empowering women across the globe.

“I believe that we’re all interconnected,” she said. “We’re all human beings, and we’re more similar than we think we are.… I have been in almost every country of the world. It is phenomenal how you have the same worries in different languages, in different religions and in different ways of living, you still worry about your children. You want to be happy. You want to be healthy — they’re the same concerns. There’s a common ground for women to know one another that’s very strong.”

Despite teaching for nearly two decades, Santana only realized her passion for pedagogy after a stint as a teaching assistant during her master’s program in radio-television at Temple University.

“I did a master’s degree where they put me as a T.A. in a classroom, and I fell in love,” she said. “I talked to my advisor and I said, ‘What do I need to do so I can be you?’”

That chance experience grew into a long-running love affair with academia, culminating with her doctorate in International Communication, also earned at Temple.

When she’s not teaching youngsters at Valencia’s Take Stock for Children program, advocating for the Farm Worker’s Association of Florida’s Women to Women program, or working as an organizer or board member for Equality Florida, Pride Faculty and Staff, Planned Parenthood, the American Association of University Women or the National Women’s Studies Association, Santana serves as a mentor for international students here at UCF.

“When I see students that are international, a lot of people send them to me because they’re learning in a second language like I did,” she said. “It’s a different set of issues and problems. I love to talk to them, to listen to them — they’re very smart. Like I always said, your intelligence has no accent. You might be a perfect English speaker but have nothing to say, while you have an international student who’s struggling but is really smart. They feel minimized because they can’t compete at the same level grammatically.”

She said one of the most common problems that international students face is a lack of confidence. It’s difficult for high-achieving students to find themselves limited or stymied by a second language.
“It’s a strong problem because they come from good grades, excelling in their content or topic area, and then they come into another language and they feel like they’re a child starting again,” Santana said. “It’s very difficult for your self-esteem, and it’s very difficult, no matter what you gender is, to feel empowered.”

Although she’s separated by a span of more than four decades and several hundred miles her Cuban homeland, Santana holds her Caribbean heritage close to her heart. One of her proudest moments, however, was when she became an American citizen.

“I have many homelands, but I’m an American citizen by choice,” she said. “I tell my children, ‘I’m more American than you are; I wanted to be an American, you were born here.’ But I’m still very Caribbean at heart.”