Los Angeles Times

Friday, June 19, 1998

The Faces of Protest
Too young to vote, yet too politically aware to ignore current events, the latest generation of student activists speaks out on Prop. 227 and other issues.
By JOCELYN Y. STEWART, Times Staff Writer

Anger. Frustration. Passion. Hope.
      Talk to students who have been motivated to take action--to walk out or sit in or pound the pavement handing out leaflets--and this is what you hear.
Strip away the fist-pumping rhetoric and the posturing of the moment and student activists often express the same sentiment that has driven other generations to act.
      "I had to do something," said 16-year-old Lorena Zavala, who recently participated in a protest against Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education measure approved by voters June 2. "I couldn't say, 'It's not going to affect me so I'm not going to worry about it.' "
      "There are a lot of wrongs that need to be made right," said Dany Garcia, 15. "A lot of prejudice and hate."
      "Maybe we can make a difference. You never know," said 14-year-old Susy Cervantes.
      "They need to listen to us," said Ana Romo, 15. "It's our education, not theirs."
      This is the face of student activism in Los Angeles: often too young to vote, yet too politically aware not to care. In recent years, high school and college students have made their voices heard on everything from school dress codes and the poor conditions of schools to Proposition 187 and affirmative action.       They have fasted, debated, marched to the border, protested at City Hall.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 68.5% Latino, the issues that have evoked the loudest student outcry are those seen as attacks on Latinos or immigrants, issues that directly affect students, their families or friends.
      Compared with the massive walkouts provoked by Proposition 187, the reaction to the passage of Proposition 227 has been mild. In the fall of 1994, reporting on the student demonstrations was an exercise in endurance--walking the streets along with students who tirelessly trekked from school to school, picking up other students along the way. One day in November before the election, more than 10,000 students in Los Angeles and Orange counties walked out of class.
      In the wake of Proposition 227, school principals have been instructed to provide students with on-campus opportunities to express their views and learn about the law. The aim is to educate students and to avoid massive walkouts.
      "They're identifying the leaders who might be planning these activities and they're having small group dialogues at the schools," said Diane Ramirez, the Los Angeles district's administrator of school operations.
      But students have not been completely quiet or still.
      A few days after voters approved the anti-bilingual education ballot initiative, students walked out at Belmont and Wilson high schools. And last week, more than 500 students from at least three high schools marched downtown and demonstrated in front of government buildings.

Choosing to Take a Stand
      Dany, an aspiring poet with a love for the works of Mark Twain, was among those who walked away from classes at Roosevelt High School after nutrition break and headed downtown. It was not a decision he made lightly; he pondered the possible repercussions (he was later ordered to serve eight hours of detention). And he discussed it with a teacher and with his parents.
      "They said if I believed in the cause I should do it, I should be responsible enough to make my own decision," said Dany, who years ago participated in an anti-Proposition 187 march.
      He decided to show his support for bilingual education in a visible way and speak against what he sees as a wave of anti-Latino sentiment.
      "I knew that the law had passed and everything; still, we got people's attention and made them more aware," he said. "We got media attention and our school's attention. . . . They never talked to us about it and a lot of students felt very strongly on the subject."
      Just a few years ago, Lorena would not have been as moved to act. When Proposition 187 was being debated, the U.S.-born student saw no reason for alarm.
      "I was like everybody else: 'They're not going to do anything to me,' " Lorena said.
      Then she witnessed the involvement of her college-age cousins in the anti-Proposition 187 protests and heard their lectures. And she began to see how, one way or another, the laws affect us all.
      "They said this is what's happening in the world and this is what you can do to change it," she said. "Some may not agree with you, but some will thank you for doing it."
      With Proposition 227 she did not have to look further than her cousins, who arrived from Mexico five years ago, to see a direct impact.
      "To this day they still have some trouble with the language," said Lorena, a student at Bravo Medical Magnet High School. "What, are they supposed to be thrown in the corner somewhere? 'Oh well, you didn't learn it.' "
      After the marches last week, a Proposition 227 leader accused "union lobbies" of inciting the students. Others also pointed to the influence of outsiders. At Belmont High School, an administrator saw an adult passing out fliers calling for last week's walkout.
      What is certain is that students influence each other. And the protests can increase dialogue among young people of different ages. When students walked out of Wilson High School, UCLA students showed up "to make sure things didn't get out of control," said Lina Velasco, a UCLA student and high school outreach coordinator for UCLA's MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan).
      MEChA students held forums on Proposition 227 at Venice and Santa Monica high schools before the election, and the group's anti-227 campaign was helped along by the efforts of high school students.
      "They were helping us go out and precinct-walk," Velasco said. "It was hard for them to know we had worked so hard, yet the voters chose to vote for it."
Students have also taught each other that there is more than one way to protest.
      At Wilson High School, students attended a forum sponsored by MALDEF, and later a few Wilson students encouraged students at El Sereno Middle School to express their views in ways that do not involve leaving campus. MALDEF does not support student walkouts.

Past Activists Back Students
      This coming together of students was part of the strength of the anti-Proposition 187 student effort four years ago, said Angel Cervantes, a former student activist who now teaches a fifth-grade bilingual education class at Morningside Elementary School in San Fernando.
      "It wasn't even a conscious decision," said Cervantes, who was a college student at the time. "It was a kind of marriage that just occurred. When we decided to formalize, we decided that would be our strength, to help younger students organize, in high schools in particular."
      Cervantes was active in a group known as the Four Winds Student Movement, a coalition of student groups that organized protests.
      The group "came at a moment of hunger for that type of organization, which is why we grew so quickly and why people had such respect," Cervantes said.
      "For the first time in years the student movement was consciously holding meetings with labor organizations."
      But by the time Proposition 227 was being debated, Four Winds had disbanded. Those who were in high school are now in college. The former college students like Cervantes "all graduated and are now full-time activists or like myself, teachers," he said.
      Cervantes, who finished his master's degree in the midst of a 16-day hunger strike, is building an organization for activist teachers and has helped collect signatures of teachers who have vowed not to implement Proposition 227.
      Aside from the transient nature of students, the comparatively mild response to Proposition 227 may be a result of the public's confusion about the intent of the proposition, said James Lafferty, director of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which was a key anti-187 organizer.
      "Proposition 187 was much more obviously an anti-immigrant and xenophobic measure--it was transparently so," Lafferty said. "With Proposition 227, the xenophobia is more subtle. If you entitle a ballot measure, 'English for the Children,' it's hard to be against that. You want your children to be able to speak the language and prosper and get a job."
      Sheri Annis, spokeswoman for Proposition 227, said the initiative was straightforward. The response was mild because students and the general public supported the initiative, she said.
      "There's certainly teenagers and college students who are happy to see our initiative prevail and feel like their brothers and sisters will now receive a much better education."

Activism Cultivates Constant Awareness
      In Los Angeles at least, the question may not be whether students achieve their goals of rolling back Proposition 227 or improving school facilities, but how activism may influence their future.
      Paul Rogat Loeb, a lecturer and author of "Generation at the Crossroads, Apathy and Action on the American Campus," said contrary to widespread notions, students who are involved in social issues often turn into adults who are active.
      Those studies show "that people can live values that are about changing the society. . . . They don't have to surrender and sell out their values," he said.
Lorena is banking on the words of advice adults gave her when she was deciding whether to participate in the protest.
      "They all said go with what you believe," she said. "They told me, 'This world is going to be for you, not for us. Everything that is done is going to be for you and future generations.' "