After moving to Omaha at a young age, Diego Trejo learned to balance his life as a Nebraskan with his native culture and apply that to his future career.
Trejo may sound like a very Hispanic name, but Trejo also largely identifies with his Omaha upbringing.
“I’m originally from Mexico City. I was born there, right in the federal district. We moved to Omaha when I was seven months old because my dad got a job,” Trejo said. “I grew up having English in school and then Spanish at home.”
Trejo’s name, however, has been pointed out to him as a warning sign for possible prejudice.
“The name kind of says ‘Okay, that person might not be from here’ and my parents would always say ‘You need to work hard, because if they see your name on the resume, they might pick the other person, so you have to be better,’” Trejo said.
Balancing the cultural identity as a Nebraskan wasn’t always easy for Trejo, especially when perceptions of Mexicans were incorporated into conversations.
“I have thought to myself and thought ‘Is there a certain thing that people think of when they see or hear Mexican?’ If you look at my family, I’m the lightest. I have the lightest skin and hair and everything. Growing up, people would say ‘Oh, you don’t look like the others’ even here in Lincoln. It makes me wonder ‘What do they imagine Mexican people being?’ I feel like I’ve assimilated to the culture here,” Trejo said.
Even during his first few days in Nebraska, people tried putting Trejo and his family into a box.
“Omaha, although it has racial diversity, it is super segregated. If you’re Mexican or Hispanic, you live in South Omaha,” Trejo said. “When we first moved to Omaha, the real estate lady was looking for us to live in south Omaha. My mom wanted to live out west, but the real estate lady said ‘oh, this is where you’d be more comfortable.’”
Even when he arrived at UNL, Trejo struggled with his identity.
“I went to a MASA meeting (Mexican American Student Association) and I felt like I didn’t belong. I feel like my experience of what I had growing up is so different than what a majority of people had,” Trejo said. “It made me have an identity thing where I’m like ‘Well, what side of the fence do I belong on?’ If I’m Hispanic, then I’m too white. If I go the other way, then it’s like ‘well, you’re the only person of color here.’”
Others have pointed out the tensions that exist toward Mexicans to Trejo, even when they’re putting on their best side of “Nebraska Nice.”
“When you meet and you say where you’re from, people will say something about how they appreciate Hispanic culture. Let me give you an example. I’ll say ‘I’m Mexican’ and someone will go ‘Oh, I love enchiladas!’ You don’t have to prove to me you like some part of my culture for me to think you’re cool,” Trejo said.
Trejo wants Nebraskans to stop being tolerant and start being accepting. He pointed out the false perceptions being made of Latin American immigrants that he believes is feeding the tensions they face in the United States today.
“Tolerance isn’t acceptance. Tolerance is saying you granted them permission to be here. It’s a red state ultimately and there’s not as much diversity,” Trejo said. “I do think that ties into it, but I do think that it’s more so political and news coverage. This way of framing immigrants or people of color, the only time you see them is on the news or in a crime. It’s the only time people here gain information about immigrants, which is not really conducive of the people that represents.”
Trejo believes the media is falsely framing immigrants, but he also believes that the current administration isn’t helping the matter at all either.
“If you had someone more accepting and promotional of immigrants, people would have a different, wider perception of that. Not even if you agree with it. I’m not saying you’d have to adopt that viewpoint, but I think having the conversation about that would be much better and would open people’s eyes more,” Trejo said.
Few interactions between Nebraskans and Latin Americans also leads to misperceptions of their identity. Trejo believes that many Nebraskans group all Latin Americans as Mexicans, which leads to more negative perceptions.
“People here don’t know how to differentiate between people who come from other Latin American countries. If you were to show someone from here someone from Brazil, Puerto Rico, Colombia or Mexico, you would all label them as Mexicans. Just because someone speaks Spanish, doesn’t mean they are Mexican. I think that’s only amplified the negative representation of Mexico. That’s way more people than it should be taken under fire,” Trejo said.
The prejudice toward the struggle of immigrants has also been made evident to Trejo at UNL. Class discussions have brought out the perceptions many Nebraskans have toward immigrants.
“People would say, ‘well if you can’t come over here legally, then don’t.’ That viewpoint doesn’t encompass the struggle that many of these people are going through. You’re not going to this country just because. There’s a lot of people that are persecuted from their own country and go through means that aren’t as great. You have not once thought about what is actually going on in these countries,” Trejo said.
Trejo believes he has to reassure others frequently that he is a legal citizen of the United States.
“You almost see a sigh of relief.”
Trejo is currently a senior at UNL on the pre-medicine tract. He hopes to become a pediatrician because he believes the relationship between pediatricians and their patients is unique.
“I just think you form a really cool relationship from seeing someone over the span of time,” Trejo said.
Trejo also wants to utilize his Hispanic identity and Spanish-language skills to serve more patients than a typical pediatrician.
“I would love to be a bilingual liaison. I don’t think that someone should feel uncomfortable receiving medical treatment just because of where they come from or the language that they do or don’t speak,” Trejo said.
Trejo acknowledged that not many other students with Mexican heritage are on the same career path he is.
“There’s not really that many other Mexican people in my class. There is racial representation, but ultimately it is Nebraska and the majority will be white,” Trejo said.
His racial identity has worried Trejo about his future as a doctor studying and working in Nebraska, but he believes he has somewhat of an advantage over other Hispanics in medicine.
“I don’t look that Hispanic. I don’t sound that Hispanic. If you didn’t look at the name, you would be like ‘he could be a few somethings.’ I feel like that serves me better, which is terrible,” Trejo said.
As far as his time at UNL so far, Trejo has perceived many ways the university isn’t handling its immigrant and international students properly.
“There are organizations that are multicultural and international, but I think that the university and the way we have it structured, we have a tendency to say, ‘Okay, international students go be friends with international students. Here’s a group for you,’” Trejo said.
According to Trejo, just having the diverse population doesn’t make the university a multicultural school.
“Although you are providing them a place to be, ultimately that actual integration into Lincoln culture and UNL doesn’t happen to the greatest extent that I think it should be,” Trejo said.
Despite the lack of integration, Trejo believes UNL is a diverse school. Trejo believes the university has the potential to be a great multicultural school.
“It is more representative than the rest of Nebraska. I live an hour away, but it is super nice to go to a niche hub where there are so many different people of different backgrounds. I don’t think I would have gotten the same experience going to another place. It’s ultimately figuring out how we change it from representation to integration,” Trejo said.