August 23, 2004

Students adrift in alien culture find anchor in Lawndale school

By Jerry Kammer
Copley News Service

A few years ago, Jessica Alvarado was distracted from her high school studies by the sorts of domestic strains that squeeze many immigrant families struggling for a foothold in the United States.

Her mother, a machine operator at a plastics factory, and her father, who drives a van that serves the disabled, were quarreling as they faced the kinds of financial pressures they had hoped to escape when they left their native Guatemala.

They even separated for a time.

"My mom and dad were always working and didn't have time for me," said Jessica, who dropped out of Hawthorne High School and seemed headed into a vortex of failure.

"I was struggling with some things," she said.

Now Jessica thanks Lloyde Continuation High School in Lawndale, from which she graduated a year ago, for lifting her out of the whirlpool that all too often pulls Latino youngsters into gangs or out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Latina teen pregnancy rates are the highest in the country, according to statistics.

"There were a lot of people there who inspired me," she said of the Lloyde teachers.

"They were always there to support you. If you have someone who supports you, I think you can accomplish anything."

Jessica now has a job as a hotel desk clerk and is attending El Camino College.

Kevin Starr, California historian and USC professor, said such teachers and schools -- along with community institutions such as Little League, the Scouts and the church -- have long been vital to the success of immigrants to the United States.

"I am constantly telling groups, strengthen your local institutions because they will be the agencies around which the people transform themselves," Starr said.

Lloyde Principal Ed Madrid said the school aims to change the lives of kids who "aren't fitting in at other schools, for whatever reason."

"A lot of the kids who come to us have given up on themselves," he said. "And the schools have given up on them, too."

Madrid outlines a scenario he often encounters among youngsters who have recently arrived in the United States from an isolated farming community in Mexico or Central America.

"They are in cultural shock," Madrid said.

"This is a totally alien world to them. And with mom and dad working as much as they can, the family structure starts to fray along the edges. So the kids are left to themselves and the gangs start to sweep them up. The gangs become a second family. They take care of you. They watch out for you."

Gangs are proliferating along with Latino immigrant communities, according to Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank that develops ideas to encourage greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

"Gang crime is exploding nationally -- rising 50 percent from 1999 to 2002 -- driven by the march of Hispanic immigrants east and north across the country," MacDonald warns.

Madrid told the tale of a 15-year-old who arrived from Guatemala, where his mother had left him in his grandmother's care for five years while she worked -- illegally -- as a hotel chamber maid. Then she paid a smuggler to bring him across the Mexican border.

"This kid came from a village on the side of some mountain in Guatemala, and a year later he's got his head shaved, he's got the name of his gang tattooed on his neck and he's flashing the gang signs," Madrid said.

"The irony is that his mother had saved for years to bring him up here so he could have a better life."

To work with such teenagers, Lloyde has developed a culture of encouragement and expectation and vigilance.

"We watch the kids, we almost mother the kids," said Marguerite Sturges, the school's records keeper who sees encouraging that effort as part of the job.

"We tell them, 'Get here on time; you're not going to get in trouble; we want to see you graduate.' There's a lot of one-on-one contact. They're getting attention here that they don't get at home. It seems to pull them through."

Because many immigrant families come from destitute farming villages, where school usually stops after sixth grade, high school can seem an extravagance.

Seventy-six percent of recent Mexican and Central American adult immigrants lack a high school diploma, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Forty-six percent have an eighth-grade education or less, the institute reports.

"A lot of the parents feel the kids should be out working rather than getting an education," Sturges said. "We tell the parents that schooling is first. But that's tough when a parent is working two and three jobs."

Academic counselor Oscar Gutierrez said many immigrant youngsters are scarred by an unrelenting churning in their home lives. Families are hounded by low salaries, high rents that are hard to manage even when rent is shared with another family, and the resulting crowding and loss of privacy, he said.

Such pressurized conditions need only a spark to explode into domestic violence. If the family is in the United States illegally, that only adds to the strain.

"We're dealing with a lot of kids from broken homes," said Gutierrez, who was a small boy when his parents emigrated from Mexico, settling in Huntington Park. His office wall is covered with military recruiting posters, a Spanish-language poster about how to get into the university, and a banner celebrating the 1995 national basketball championship of his alma mater, UCLA.

"Sometimes the dad is missing or an older sibling is incarcerated or maybe dead because of gangs and drugs.

"There are a lot of teenage mothers and fathers, or sometimes the parents went back to Mexico and the kids stayed here."

The greatest restraint binding many of the students, Gutierrez said, is that they have become so accustomed to seeing failure around them that they can't envision a better life.

"Sometimes the kids see (Latino) role models, but they don't believe they can be that person," he said.

"They think I grew up in Palos Verdes somewhere."

"You need someone to guide you," an 18-year-old Lloyde student named Ricardo said last November.

He said he had five friends who had been killed in gang violence and three others who became Marines.

"I'm trying to go the straight way," he said. "I know for a fact I don't want my mother to see me in a casket."

But in March, after a friend was killed in a gang attack, the young man was arrested after bringing a knife to school.

"He was afraid they were going to attack him, too," Madrid said. "He wanted to be able to protect himself."