“Who are you?” “California’s future leaders!”
In the first half of high school I moved without purpose. The only goal I had in mind was college but no real plan on how to get to college. I knew the college application process from my older brother and the UCLA Early Academic Outreach Program counselors at South Gate High School but I lacked the motivation and drive to do more than just my classes to prepare for college. I was involved with an environmental justice group in Southeast Los Angeles and two mariachis (South Gate High School’s and our own group) and spent the rest of my time in school, reading, playing video games, or (in the second half of my sophomore year), with my then girlfriend.
The summer of 2005 was a strange time for South Gate: for the first time in over two decades, all of its high school students had a summer vacation. South Gate High School’s position as the only high school in South Gate for over 70 years was about to end. South East High School was set to open in September 2005, taking with it about a third of South Gate High School’s students, along with South Gaters attending Jordan High School in Watts and those bussed out of South Gate due to overcrowding. The days of summertime school for two-thirds of South Gate high school students were over. For the first time in my life, I had a summer vacation.
I think it was for that reason that my older brother pushed me to apply to the 2005 Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project (CLYLP) in Sacramento. He knew that I needed motivation I was not going to find by checking out books from the library or staying around South Gate. All I had lined up that summer were two summer school classes to fulfill graduation requirements and a free August.
The CLYLP promised me a week away from home with other students from California, most of us Latino, and learn about college and expose us to Chicano/Latino professionals. My first summer camp.
What I got was so much more.
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When I think of the CLYLP the first thing I remember is the Sweatbus. I was on the bus from Los Angeles (I think it started in Riverside or San Bernardino) to Sacramento, with stops in towns along the 99 in the Central Valley. As our bus made its way north of Santa Clarita our bus driver had bad news for us: the air conditioning unit was not working and we would have to bear the heat of the summertime Central Valley and all those bodies with a few open windows. It was miserable but made for an interesting beginning to a great week.
On the bus ride I talked with others about ourselves, where we were from, what we were looking forward to. There was the Argentine American soccer player from southern Orange County; the guy who grew up in Huntington Park but moved to Moreno Valley a few years before and whose family was from Yahualica (we bonded over our geographical proximity on both sides of the border); the girls from Artesia and Lincoln Heights; the girl from Thousand Oaks who took photos the whole time; the girl from Compton who dressed like a stereotypical chola; the girl from Silver Lake with a last name I recognized (I looked her up later: her parents were/are heavily involved in Los Angeles politics). We were all incoming juniors and seniors in high school—the critical years for college applications. I sought tips from everyone and was interested in learning what we shared and how we differed.
Once at Sacramento State we were all split into Familias, with a Facilitator (adult in charge of us) and a Peer Counselor (college student). For the duration of the CLYLP you introduced yourself with your name and what Familia you were part of. The purpose of the Familia was to spend time with one group of people and bond in a way you would not if you were left alone. Throughout each day roll was called with each Familia singing or chanting (sidenote: most of my computer passwords of the last ten years have been based on Familia Uno chants). It was your signature and how other people knew you (“Familia Cuatro had a funny chant last time!”). I was in Familia Uno. My facilitator was from Whittier/Pico Rivera and my hermanas/hermanos were from all over California: Anaheim, Wasco, Fresno, San Jose, Pomona, etc.
The workshops were varied: some on the importance of Latinos in California (Antonio Villaraigosa had just been sworn in as Mayor of Los Angeles, Fabián Núñez was Assembly Speaker, and demographic forecasting said that more Latino children were the majority of newborns), others on the Chicano movement and the importance of education (Sal Castro), arts and activism, etc.
I had the chance to meet people from different backgrounds—children of college students or professionals who were the second generation from their family to attend the CLYLP, Latinos who went to excellent private schools, kids who spoke little English and seemed to have arrived in the U.S. just a few years before. What mattered is that we were at the CLYLP together and to learn from each other and together. We were to walk out with our heads high in the knowledge that college and professional success were within our grasp and we had a support network.
The message of the CLYLP is encapsulated by the call-and-response “Who are you?” “California’s future leaders!” We were brought to Sacramento to come together as familias and learn from each other and the speakers, but the real goal was for all us to leave empowered in ourselves in the knowledge that we were “California’s future leaders.” We were all Peter Parkers to the CLYLP’s Uncle Ben—we were destined be leaders of our communities. We were exhorted to be selfless in our work; how selfless was for each of us to decide.
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When I returned to South Gate at the end of the CLYLP I had a drive I had never possessed in my life. I wanted to live up to the CLYLP’s mission and dove headlong into different extracurricular activities and my studies, hoping that in doing so I was an example to others and a leader. Whether it was mariachi, writing/journalism, politics, or ethnicity, I wanted to stand out. It was the force that pushed me through high school and into college. Yes, I was always a good student and quick minded, but I was aimless and not deliberate in my actions until I attended the CLYLP. It was even the start of my college application essays, where I talked about the need for more leaders from underrepresented communities and the desire for personal success and paying it back to the community.
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At the same time, I was a “good” student and tried to not rock the boat so as not to jeopardize my chances at getting into college. South Gate High School was woefully underprepared for the new school year in 2005; classes were overcrowded and there were not enough books for students. The consolidation of the three tracks into one also saw the reduction in the number of classes available, as if the administration believed there was no need for as many AP or Honors classes with the consolidation of the three tracks and the move of some students to South East High School. When walkouts took place at South Gate High School in November 2005, I did not participate because while the issues they were protesting affected me, I wanted to stay in class and I also did not want to participate because I was not a leader or organizer.
The same story happened in 2006. Students walked out of Los Angeles high schools to protest H.R. 4437 as part of national protests against the Sensenbrenner Bill. South Gate High School saw two or three days of walkouts and school-wide lockouts. Instead of being outside to protest the immigration bill, I stayed in the classroom because I chose my academics over protests. I made the right choice, but I still regret that I didn’t live up to my convictions at the time.
The emphasis I placed on watching out for myself completely excluded activism and being a leader. I believed in what I had learned but refused to embrace it when push came to shove. I was a Mexican American Prince playing it safe.
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In October of 2005 a few of us CLYLP alumni Southern California went to Knott’s Scary Farm together. I saw a few others at the November 2005 Chicano Youth Leadership Conference (Sal Castro’s program).
I remember some names today and just a few from my Familia. I’m sure I still have the list with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of everyone who attended the 2005 CLYLP at my parent’s house. Many of them were my friends on MySpace but I deleted my page after high school and lost touch with most of them. I keep in touch with one person who attended Wellesley (the aforementioned girl from Thousand Oaks) while I was at Harvard and I was classmates with one CLYLP 2005 alumnus at Harvard.
I helped at the first CLYLP Los Angeles Institute (2007, I think). My older brother’s friends were organizing and my brother was helping them, even leading a college application workshop. I think I helped review sample college application essays by program participants. I applied to participate in the main CLYLP again after 2005, both as a peer counselor and support staff, but was rejected both times.
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In the ten years since the CLYLP I have applied to college, attended college and graduated, and moved from Cambridge to Los Angeles and back to Cambridge. In terms of the Chicano Education Pipeline, I made it. I find it difficult now to reconcile my current work with the plea to be a “future leader.” On the one hand, how can I pretend to present myself as a leader when that title is best if bestowed on someone? What am I doing now, how does that better me, and how does it positively affect and improve the lives of others?
I’ve often ruminated over what, if anything, college students and graduates from a disadvantaged or underrepresented background have to their community(ies). As I finished high school I lost count as to how many people told me not to forget about them or South Gate when I was out in the East Coast. Not only that, others told me that I should come back and work to improve the community I came from.
Why is that expectation plastered on college students and graduates of color or low-income communities? Is the desire to do what is best for oneself restrained by the voices reminding you of a debt you owe to a community or a group of people? And who is the debtor who will one day come to me and settle this debt?
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When I was back in South Gate for Christmas last year I went with my friend to his ex-coworker’s birthday party in Crenshaw. At the party I saw someone who I’m convinced was in Familia Uno, but I didn’t mention it to her. Had I mentioned the CLYLP and she confirmed we were in the same Familia, I’m sure we would have exchanged more than just “hi.” I regret not saying anything.