Daily Press Special
“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 would think that someone like Sanchez would have had no difficulty advancing. But life was not kind at first.
At 16, he was an inmate who had been denied school – his mother was terrified he would be injured 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 biggest ambition then was to be a waiter, so he enrolled in non-credit ESL classes to improve his English skills.
Brandon recently transferred from Santa Monica College to UC Berkeley, where he is majoring in artistic practice. Her educational journey affirms the power of hope, the innate potential and the uplifting hands of mentors.
A difficult start
“It was like a fire, without the ashes. We literally lost everything, including our house,” Sanchez recalls growing up in the capital San Salvador, when his father lost his job as a chef. “I lost two years of school.”
They were starving and homeless, wandering between the homes of relatives and friends. When his parents’ marriage fell apart, Sanchez’s mother sank 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 mother refused to let her son go outside (not even to go to school) for an entire year.
Desperate, Sanchez eventually made it back to high school, qualified for a gifted program, and graduated at the top of his class. He won a scholarship to Dr. Andres Bello University, where he studied graphic design. By 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 United States
Sanchez found work as a dishwasher to help pay off his family’s immigration debts. He first enrolled in non-credit ESL courses at a community college in Los Angeles, then Santa Monica College, where he soon took credit courses in writing and English.
“Working and studying was not easy, but I did my best,” he says.
In a LinkedIn post announcing his admission to Cal, Sanchez wrote, “My counselors recognized an aspect of me that I had long forgotten: potential. I didn’t see all the possibilities, but they motivated me. My intention was only to learn English, but after a few lessons and counseling appointments, I realized that I had to do more.
He was talking about mentors like SMC advisors Paul Jimenez and Carl Baccus, and acting associate dean Jose Hernandez, who kept urging him to take more classes. “And after?” they would say. Sanchez asked eight public schools to transfer, to their encouragement. He was admitted to all eight.
“Hard work, entrepreneurship, intellectual curiosity, perseverance, kindness and compassion are the secret to his success,” says SMC Spanish teacher Alejandro Lee, another Sanchez mentor, who recruits students for the SMC Men of Color Action Network and Brother to the Brother Mentorship Program, which pairs 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 of these programs.
He gives it all
Sanchez went from dishwasher to runner at Granville’s Café in West Hollywood and he had just been promoted to busser when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He became one of millions of California workers who were laid off.
Fortunately, Sanchez had set up a side gig as a freelance photographer. Back in El Salvador, his aunt had given him a phone with a camera, and he had learned 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 ID: @Photos_by_brand) is impressive.
At SMC, Sanchez volunteered his skills to various organizations and became social media manager for the Latino Center. His off-campus community service activities include Local Heart Foundation, America Needs You, American Film Institute, Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, City of Hawthorne, and Santa Monica Black Lives Association.
“He volunteers with many organizations out of his own free will and generosity, not because they add a line to his already lengthy resume or because we ask him to,” says Professor Lee.
“Brandon is sensitive and caring,” added Jose Hernandez. “Once he commits, he gives it his all.”
Sanchez has won various SMC awards and has also participated in the Project Destined Summer 2022 virtual internship program and completed the Santa Monica NextGen Leadership mentorship program, a partnership between the college and the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. Recently, he received a scholarship from the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation, one of 55 recipients out of more than 1,000 applicants. Five other scholarships, including the prestigious Regents Transfer Student Scholarship, will cover Brandon’s expenses at Cal (and he has a new job as an associate student event photographer).
Watching his success brought joy to his SMC mentors.
“What I really 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 grateful 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’s keeping his options open. Future plans include a minor in creative writing, study abroad (in London) and graduate school “definitely”. A true researcher, he relishes the idea of an open future: “I want to spend my life in different careers, continue to grow and learn.”
Grace Smith is Director of Public Information at SMC