In “We Are Alive When We Speak for Justice,” 57 students from Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School explore a piece of history often overlooked: Mendez v. Westminster, the case that led to the desegregation of California schools and was a precursor to Brown v. Board of Education, which followed nine years later. In the anthology, the young authors delve into firsthand experiences with a variety of discriminations and prejudices, and express a desire to change the conversation about their community, Boyle Heights. The book is the culmination of 826LA’s twelfth Young Authors’ Book Project, through which the students experienced every step of becoming published authors over the course of a semester. The following is a piece from the book written by Mendez High School student Joanna Avila.
I was known as a troublemaker. I was irresponsible and didn’t care about anything or anybody but myself. I just wanted to be around my friends all the time and gave my teachers a hard time. I moved about three times to different high schools, so I got used to seeing different faces. I was angry that I moved so much, but I had no choice. My behavior was one of the main reasons why my mom sent me out to Indianapolis. She thought that by sending me out of my comfort zone and separating me from my friends, I would focus on myself. When I moved to Indianapolis, it was a really big eye-opener for me and made me see things differently. In my school in L.A., I knew everyone—most people were Latino, which was the environment I was used to being in.
Besides moving from a different school in California, I moved to a community in Indiana that was also very different. In Los Angeles, my neighborhood in Boyle Heights was mostly a population of Latinos, but when it came to Indianapolis, there was a population of all races. The streets in Indiana were empty, very quiet, and didn’t have as much life as Los Angeles streets have on a daily basis. It was really quiet, and you hardly saw any cars pass by, or people walking. There weren’t any sidewalks on Minnesota Street, where I lived in Indianapolis. It was mostly just trees and a huge space of land. It was kind of like walking in a forest, I guess. It would be filled with bugs and fireflies each time I went out in the backyard. There were some places that were really nice, that you wouldn’t see out here in L.A. unless you drove out somewhere far. It was a good place to relax, but I always missed the noise and hearing the cars and people screaming outside while passing by. I even missed the people playing sports or playing really loud music from their cars or homes.
I was way out of my comfort zone. While I was used to moving so much, I was not used to being with people of different races. Where I lived in Indianapolis, we were the only Latinos on our block. People looked at us like we were different; looks like that didn’t occur in Los Angeles because everyone was of the same race. I was really intimidated because I had to be around a different environment and people. At school, there were hardly any Latinos, and most of them didn’t know much English. I did feel welcome, though, because I made friends as soon as I got to class.
I couldn’t wait to start school for some reason. I liked starting over fresh from when my behavior wasn’t good in my past schools. My dad took me to register at my high school. The school was really big, and the whole outside was glass windows. I met my counselor. He started by asking what race I was, and where I came from. I felt really awkward because the other high schools I went to didn’t ask that. Then he tried talking to my dad about the classes, and what I needed to sign up. My dad doesn’t really know much English, so they called in a translator. She was a tall, white woman who spoke both English and Spanish. The counselor told me about the classes and electives they provided at the school. I was really interested in the ROTC program, which prepares you for any type of military service. One of my goals, since eighth grade, has been to join the Marines, so I saw this as an opportunity to push myself to get into this class. I liked how they worked out and got paid, and it would keep me out of trouble. It would teach me discipline and help me stay focused. Also because they show you how to be responsible, I saw it as more of a way out, because I’ve always been more athletic than academic. I talked to my dad in Spanish about the classes I wanted, and he agreed to my joining ROTC.
I finally got my schedule, and I was waiting with a group of new students. A staff person took most of the students to their classes, and I was left with one other girl. Finally, the other girl and I were taken to a room where there were tutors, and they introduced us to them. They told us if we ever needed help with any homework, to go to that room and they would help us. I didn’t understand why they were telling me that, but then I noticed that the girl next to me didn’t speak much English. I asked the staff person what that room was for. She responded that it’s for kids who need extra help. I felt she brought this to my attention because of my race.
Finally, I got through half of the day and liked my classes so far. All I needed was my last period. I entered the class and the teacher asked me, “Where are you from? What language do you speak at home?” I found it annoying that my counselor had asked me this, and now my teacher was doing the same. I told her I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and that I am Latina, but I spoke English and Spanish at home. I realized that I had been put in an ESL class, which was for English learners who didn’t really know how to speak the language. My counselor just assumed I didn’t know how to speak English because I was Latina. I really thought it was prejudiced that I got put in an English learning class when I spoke it fluently. I started to dislike the school because of how they discriminated against me. I felt like I wasn’t being treated equally. I felt embarrassed and angry.
My opinion changed after months of being in the ESL class. I met so many different people and learned about their cultures. We had an activity on Fridays, which was called Free Write Friday, when we had to write a paragraph about one of our traditions, and why it was unique from others. This was one of the classes that opened my eyes to taking my education seriously. Being in this environment taught me that I have it easier than most of the kids in my class, because I didn’t struggle with English as they did. I started helping out in the class and became like a teacher’s assistant for Ms. McDuffy, and we ended up becoming really close. After the first couple of days, she realized that I didn’t belong in her class because of my work—I always finished before anyone. She was young and a down-to-earth person. She turned out to be the cross-country coach, which she asked me to be involved in. I really liked cross-country because it helped me to stay focused, and Ms. McDuffy also helped and pushed me often. I had to keep my grades up in order to stay on the team, which motivated me to be more focused in my classes. I was only there for the first semester of my junior year and then moved back to L.A.
What I took from this experience is that from every bad situation comes something good, and I am thankful I met all these amazing, unique people. I realize that I grew as a person because I now take my education more seriously, and have learned to pick myself up when I am slacking. My behavior has also changed now that I am back, and I see that I should take advantage of what schools have to offer me, because, at the end of they day, if I slack off, it’s affecting me, not my teachers. Also, I realize that it’s really good to have friends, but they aren’t always going to be there. I realized this when I was out there in Indiana, because some of the people I used to get into trouble with suddenly became strangers. Sometimes you’ve just got to push yourself to do better, because it’s your future you are building, not theirs.
Ben Davis High School taught me we are all different, but alike in a way. What made me realize this was spending so much time with different people, which allowed me to see the good and bad that we all have as humans. Our skin, accent, and cultures may be different, but we are all human and trying to get somewhere in life.
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Joanna Avila, 16, is a student at Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School student. Her trip to Indianapolis changed her completely; she went from being a careless troublemaker to actually caring about her future. Her goal is to show that people can change, and how people can have such an enormous impact on your life.