Even though some people find it confusing that Hispanic Heritage Month actually includes two months (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15), the starting date is particularly meaningful in many Central America countries. Elena Deras Galdamez, a CU Denver student and Peer Advocate Leader (PAL) majoring in political science and ethnic studies, celebrates Sept. 15 because it’s Independence Day for her family’s home country of El Salvador.
Deras Galdamez openly discussed her Salvadoran heritage and her personal struggles with mental health. “There’s too much stigma around mental health and neurodivergence,” she said. “In Latino communities, people don’t always understand, but I’m not ashamed.” In high school, she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Originally enrolled in an honors program at her high school, she had to stop taking advanced classes due to panic attacks. She was also contending with non-epileptic seizures, which she continues to experience.
One of the ways Deras Galdamez keeps track of her mental health is through an ongoing list of the books she reads every year. In 2017, when she was first diagnosed with mental health issues, she read 68 books. The numbers decreased in 2019 and 2020, during her last year of high school and later while she was isolated during the pandemic. But things are looking up in 2021. She’s read 188 books so far, and her goal is 200 total.
Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman
Deras Galdamez admits this book made her cry. Rumi, the main character, is searching for meaning after going through a traumatic event. “It deals with a girl going through the grief process,” Deras Galdamez said. “It was an emotionally hard-hitting book for me.” Deras Galdamez, who is asexual, empathized with Rumi, who is asexual and possibly aromantic. This is an area where Deras Galdamez doesn’t fit in with her Salvadoran family. “With my own family, they have literally told me, What’s the point of a relationship if you don’t have sex?” Her answer is simple: “How can you have sex without love, but I can’t have love without sex?”
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
Mexican American writer Anna-Marie McLemore reinterprets the Snow White and Red Rose fairy tale in this young adult novel that also made Deras Galdamez’s book list. “They are Mexican and nonbinary,” Deras Galdamez said. “Their books are beautiful, and they always have a lot of LGBTQ representation.”
Citizen Illegal by José Olivares
Deras Galdamez was drawn to the themes in this book of poetry—belonging, immigration, race, class, and gender. While she admitted that “poetry is tricky,” she found some comfort in Olivares’ poems. “There were moments that made me think about my own family,” she said.
Up Next on the Reading List
Due to COVID, this is the first year Deras Galdamez is working as a PAL on campus—and she loves the in-person communication. Part of the reason her 2021 book list is expanding is because she’s happier making face-to-face connections with other students. “Being a PAL forces me to practice my communication and personal skills … It’s a great way to make new friendships as well.” Connecting with students improves her own mental health, which in turn improves her chances of reaching her reading goal for the year. Check out some of the books and authors she’s thinking about reading next.