Hablando de herencias: Valeria Portillo Rivera brings to life a home away from home

As president of the Mexican American Student Association, Valeria Portillo Rivera seeks to recapture the feeling of comfort her homeland provides for herself and her peers. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Home is much more than the language, food or community for Valeria Portillo Rivera, president of the Mexican American Student Association (MASA). The thought of Mexico transcends ordinary associations, as she said her home country is a feeling.

Making the move from Chihuahua, Mexico to USF proved to be challenging for Rivera. She was caught between two identities, struggling to find a standing between her former Mexican home and her new American one. For her, MASA was a way of feeling connected to her culture, even when being thousands of miles away.

“Whenever I go back to Mexico, I feel very grounded. When I visit my hometown, when I eat the food, when I speak the language … to me it’s very grounding,” she said.

“Finding MASA on campus was a way to find a home away from home, especially since it was my first time moving out. I was away from my family, I wanted to make friends with people, and this was the perfect way to do that.”

Rivera, who will be graduating in December with a degree in both economics and political science, discovered MASA her freshman year while attending some general events, but felt hesitant about being involved since she had no one to go with. Then came the pandemic, which moved everything online.

She spent her sophomore year working on the e-board as an event designer, but these events were few and far between due to COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, she said her mental health took a turn for the worse during this time of isolation.

“In the Mexican community, if you’re depressed or you’re anxious, it’s like ‘Why? You have everything you need.’ But there are other factors that contribute to that.”

Rivera said she came out of that experience as a greater advocate for therapy and with a new desire to build a safe place for Mexican American students.

Her decision to apply for vice president came to Rivera on a whim her junior year and a run for presidency the following year just made sense, according to Rivera. Now, in her final year at USF, Rivera said she is working to make that feeling of home possible for all members of MASA.

With the new position comes a long list of new responsibilities for Rivera to undertake. Among her wide range of duties is planning events, such as a donation drive for victims of Hurricane Ian, or Touch of Mexico, a celebration of Mexico’s Independence Day attended by close to 300 students.

Event planning on this large scale can be grueling but made easier by her other officers.

“Obviously it takes up a lot of my time, but definitely not enough to be overwhelming,” she said. “I have a great board, I have a wonderful vice president. If I ask him for help, he says ‘No problem.’”

MASA Vice President Fabian Machaen-Arredondo knows she takes these tasks in stride.

“She’s just such a natural leader that I haven’t seen too much of [before],” Machaen-Arredondo said. “She’s not scared of taking the lead, she’s happy about it. She’s excited about everything she’s doing. It doesn’t seem like a job to her.”

Machaen-Arredondo also said Rivera has the ability to effortlessly strike up a conversation with anyone, and makes sure everyone feels welcome no matter the setting or situation.

Treasurer Janet Gonzales Malonado, a senior majoring in health science, admired Rivera’s ability to balance her work and personal life, as she is always on top of things and takes her position seriously.

“She’s very good at separating business and friendship,” Malonado said. “When it comes down to business, she’s super straightforward.”

Her vision for MASA is one she wants to see through until the end, as she hopes to continue cultivating an open environment in the organization before she graduates.

“I just want to create a safe space for Mexican American students,” she said.

“Growing up Mexican American, I always felt not American enough and then not Mexican enough. Then I found a group of people who felt the exact same way that I do. MASA [is about] finding a home away from home. Being with MASA is grounding. I know a lot of people have that same feeling because we had the same experiences growing up.”