Cal: Brandon Sanchez, pictured with Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, has grown from a refugee to dishwasher to proud college student and photographer. Courtesy photo

Grace Smith

Special to the Daily Press

“Versatile, creative, innovative resilient” are adjectives Brandon Sanchez, 28, a Salvadoran immigrant, uses to describe himself on a website marketing his services as a multifaceted commercial photographer. You’d think someone like Sanchez wouldn’t have had any difficulty getting ahead. But life was not kind to begin with.

At 16, he was a shut-in denied schooling—his mother was terrified he’d get hurt in their gritty border town in northern El Salvador. At 22, he was washing dishes in a West Hollywood restaurant, hoping to be promoted to busboy. His highest ambition then was to be a server, so he signed up for noncredit ESL classes to improve his English skills

Brandon recently transferred from Santa Monica College to UC Berkeley, where he’s majoring in art practice. His educational journey affirms the power of hope, innate potential and the uplifting hands of mentors.  

 A Tough Start

“It was like a fire, without the ashes. We lost everything, literally, including our house,” Sanchez recalls of his childhood in the capital San Salvador, when his dad lost his job as a chef. “I lost two years of school.”

They were hungry and homeless, drifting between the homes of relatives and friends. When his parents’ marriage fell apart, Sanchez’s mom spiraled into a mental health crisis. They moved in with an aunt in Chalatenango near the Honduran border—a dangerous transit point for illegal drugs and firearms. His mom refused to let her son go outside (not even for school) for an entire year.

Desperate, Sanchez eventually managed to return to high school, qualified for a gifted program and graduated at the top of his class. He won a scholarship to Universidad Dr. Andres Bello, where he studied graphic design. In a twist of fate, that’s when his family won the immigration lottery (relatives in Los Angeles had applied on their behalf). In 2016, Sanchez and his family left El Salvador for the U.S.

Sanchez found work as a dishwasher to help pay off his family’s immigration-related debts. He signed up for noncredit ESL classes first at an LA community college, then at Santa Monica College, where he quickly advanced to credit courses in writing and English.

“Working and studying wasn’t easy—but I tried my best,” he says.

In a LinkedIn post announcing his admission to Cal, Sanchez wrote: “My advisors recognized an aspect of me I had forgotten long ago: potential. I couldn’t see all the possibilities, but they motivated me. My intention was only to learn English, but after some classes and counseling appointments, I realized I was meant to do more.”

He was speaking of mentors like SMC counselors Paul Jimenez and Carl Baccus, and interim associate dean Jose Hernandez, who kept urging him to take more courses. “What’s next?” they’d say. Sanchez applied to eight state schools for transfer, at their encouragement. He was admitted to all eight.

“Hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, intellectual curiosity, perseverance, kindness and compassion are the secret to his success,” says Alejandro Lee, an SMC Spanish professor, another mentor of Sanchez’s, who recruits students to the SMC Men of Color Action Network and Brother to Brother mentoring program, which pairs up male student mentors from the college’s Black Collegians and Adelante Programs with male students from John Adams Middle School (JAMS). Brandon was an enthusiastic volunteer for both these programs.

He Gives His All

Sanchez went from dishwasher to runner at Granville’s Café in West Hollywood and he’d just been promoted to busser when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. He became one among millions of Californian workers who got laid off.

Fortunately, Sanchez had established a side-gig as a freelance photographer.  Back in El Salvador, his aunt had given him a phone with a camera, and he’d taught himself the basics of nature photography (he has since upgraded to a Canon 80D and a Canon 5D Mark IV). His portfolio at sanchezbrandon.myportfolio.com (Instagram handle: @Photos_by_brand) is impressive.

At SMC, Sanchez volunteered his skills to various organizations, and became a social media manager for the Latino Center. His off-campus community service involvements include Local Heart Foundation, America Needs You, the American Film Institute, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, the City of Hawthorne and the Santa Monica Black Lives Association.

“He volunteers at many organizations out of his own volition and generosity, not because they add a line to his already-long resume or because we ask him to,” says Prof. Lee.

“Brandon is sensitive and caring,” adds Jose Hernandez. “Once he’s committed, he gives his all.” 

Sanchez won various SMC awards and also participated in the Summer 2022 Project Destined Virtual Internship Program and completed the Santa Monica NextGen Leadership Mentorship Program, a partnership between the college and Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. Recently, he received a California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation scholarships, one of 55 recipients out of over 1,000 applicants. Five other grants, including the prestigious Regents Transfer Student Scholarship, will cover Brandon’s expenses at Cal (and he has a new job as event photographer for the Associated Students).

Watching his success has brought joy to his SMC mentors.

“What I truly admire is how humble and grateful he is,” Hernandez says. “I never heard Brandon complain about how hard his life was. All I heard were words of hope and faith. How thankful he was for his health and the people helping him. He has a heart of gold.”

Sanchez wants to make the most of his time at Cal—he is keeping his options open. Future plans include a minor in creative writing, study abroad (in London), and “definitely” grad school. A true seeker, he relishes the idea of an open-ended future: “I want to spend my life in different careers, to keep growing and learning.”

Grace Smith is Director of Public Information at SMC