Breanna Denney/ Nevada Sagebrush

Daniel Enrique Pérez, professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Oct. 16. Pérez said he endured violence and poverty on his path to learning to embrace his identity.

By Jennifer Marbley

Daniel Enrique Pérez, Chicana/o-Latina/o studies professor at the University of Nevada, Reno still remembers the night someone broke into his house. The 10-year-old Pérez ran to his mother in the middle of the night after hearing noises to tell her that they were being burglarized – again.

Pérez’s mother searched the house to protect him and his brothers, Johnny and Ernesto, from whom they suspected to be local gang members or escaped detainees from a nearby juvenile detention center.

“She got the iron from the bedroom and that was our weapon,” Pérez said.

This was a common occurrence his family faced while living in a poor neighborhood.

Pérez was born into a family of migrant farm workers in Fort Worth, Texas. Although both of his parents were born in the United States, neither had the skills to read or write; they relied on hard labor to survive. The family eventually moved to Phoenix in the 1970s where, at 9 years old, Pérez began work, picking onions on a farm.

“One of the first ways that my family identified ourselves was as onion pickers,” Pérez said.

The neighborhood, or “barrio,” on the south side of Phoenix where Pérez was raised mostly consisted of a poor Latino community. Pérez helped pay the bills for a home that was just blocks away from a juvenile detention center and the community’s gang members. He lived in constant fear of burglaries by escaped detainees. Pérez said that his childhood was a painful experience because of the hostile and impoverished environment.

“My neighborhood was one of those barrios that tends to be forgotten by public officials and others,” Pérez said. “I lived on a street that was unpaved. Even though I lived in Phoenix, we didn’t have a city sewer system. I basically lived in a shack.”

Pérez was teased in school from a young age, his calloused hands that were saturated with the smell of onions after working in the fields. During this period his parents divorced and he was forced to help generate income to help support his mom and brothers.

“My mom raised me and my two brothers basically making less than $100 a month as a seamstress sometimes, as a farm worker, obtaining any odd jobs she could get and oftentimes had to ask for public assistance and food stamps,” Pérez said.

Despite having to work to help support his family, Pérez still found the time to study and, from a young age,  discovered a passion for reading. He found himself reading everything he could get his hands on including labels on products around his home.

Even with his love of reading, Pérez struggled to stay focused on school. Pérez failed multiple courses and almost dropped out of high school.

Both of his brothers joined gangs, experimented with drugs and became fathers before the age of 15. Neither of them finished school. However, there were mentors that helped guide Pérez away from a similar fate.

“I was fortunate enough to have teachers who recognized potential in me,” Pérez said. “I had a teacher who literally walked me to class. She knew that I ditched my biology class [after her French class] and that if I skipped biology, I would fail and not graduate. I was very fortunate to have people like her.”

Pérez said that he believes that young people of color, particularly blacks and Latinos, are often expected to fail, according to Pérez. He said that his brothers were not unsuccessful in school because they didn’t have dreams or that they lacked capabilities, but because the stressors of living in impoverished and dangerous communities made it difficult to succeed.

As the first person in his family to finish high school and attend a university, Pérez said that he has a strong commitment to working with first-generation college students. He tries to reach out to first-generation college students who have unique strengths and needs for academic success.

Senior Roslyn Villa is a first-generation college student taking Pérez’s course, “Topics in Cultural Studies: Chicana/o and U.S. Latina/o Theatre.” She said she loves Pérez’s class that involves reading Chicano plays and recreating scenes in class. The class also covers the topics of violence and hardships faced by Pérez and many others within the Latino community.

“I feel proud of the adversity that Latinos overcome,” she said. “Whether it’s economically or culturally, Latinos play a large role in this country. Yet, they have gone through several challenges regarding immigration, identity and discrimination.”

Pérez’s academic career is linked to his personal history, ethnic identity and problems Latinos face. According to Pérez, personal histories are intertwined with identities and they are very important to affirm an identity that people can be proud of. Pérez said while he is proud of his success as a professor at UNR, he will never be ashamed of his childhood as an onion picker.

Jennifer Marbley can be reached at