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October 23, 2014
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Sí, Se Puede

‘Yes, we can’ dance between two cultures

As the only Caucasian in this particular Teton High School classroom, Rose Hendricks, the new teacher, stood out. Upon first glance, one might assume it was a class for Learning English Proficiency (LEP); after all, students ranged from recent immigrants to first-generation Americans.

But it was quite the opposite. The twenty-five high achieving Hispanic students in the room had been recommended by their English teachers to participate in Literature and Leadership, a course focusing on these three questions: Who am I? Who have I been? Who will I become?
These are the questions an emerging group of Hispanic student leaders are asking themselves and their peers at Teton High School. The challenges in answering the questions run deeper for Hispanic youth than for most high school students.

My name is Obdulia Zulema Montenegro Lazalde, otherwise known as Lulu. I was born in the United States and I am of Hispanic descent. American. Mexican. Mexican-American. Chicana. Call it however you want, but that is how society categorizes me.

Society, the community built by a high school or a valley, is where students find some of their greatest barriers. Stereotypes and assumptions can create both personal walls and external blocks to success. Through the writing process in Hendricks’ class, students expressed fears about legal issues, financial constraints, and personal safety. For some of them, these are the excuses for giving up before even trying. For others, they are motivating factors—a call to action.

Do people care that I want to succeed in life, or do they see me as just another statistic of failure?

Lulu Montenegro is known as a leader at Teton High School. She has the look, the poise, the friends. But as Lulu stood in front of her peers, reading her speech for the Hispanic Youth Symposium, something much more than the problems of popularity was exposed. This was not a typical teen’s story of two-faced friends, backstabbing boys, or damaging gossipers. Lulu spoke of Latino culture; of identity, loss, and displacement. She is part of the growing voice at Teton High that is attempting to break down cultural and social barriers.

When asked about being Mexican-American, Lulu responds, “What is American? Every American comes from so many cultures. There is no single American person.” Her parents were born in Mexico, but she and her siblings were born in the United States. Lulu acknowledges this makes school more difficult for many like her. In her experience, she says, “Hispanic families aren’t integrated as much in education.”

The irony lies deep within this statement of Lulu’s: “[Hispanic] parents care so much about education. That’s why they’re here, but they are not getting involved.” She lists some reasons why: multiple jobs, the language barrier, simply not receiving the necessary information. Lulu acknowledges that her own parents became involved for the first time during her middle school years. “I started doing activities and so they got involved,” she says.

Lulu’s involvement is spurred by the expectations of her Hispanic environment. She deeply fears being average. “I see kids my age not fulfilling their dreams. I want to be something, not [get] stuck in the cycle.” For her, “being something” means graduating high school and attending San Diego State University to study international relations.

Lulu’s goals of leaving Teton Valley and earning a bachelor’s degree are not the norm within the machismo of the Hispanic culture. This is where she recognizes the benefit of the American culture in helping her realize her dreams—although she hesitates to use the word feminist. “Here women have the right to do whatever they want,” Lulu says proudly. And her family is very supportive of this attitude and her dreams. “They will do anything to help me make it work.”

 

If he has big dreams, why can’t I?

Lulu’s classmate, Edgar Chavez, began his American education in the third grade. Entering the classroom with no English made communicating with the teacher and students difficult. “Lulu acted as my translator,” Edgar recalls. The struggle with English continued until his eighth grade year, when he says he finally began to understand the new language. “My grades were bad up until then,” he says, “but I knew I was going to high school, so I stepped up to the challenges.”

The challenges keep growing for Edgar as he sets his educational sights far past high school. Motivated by a desire to help people and gain a secure, well-paying job, Edgar plans on attending college and then applying for medical school. “Maybe cardiology,” he says with a smile.
Today at Teton High, Edgar hopes he can be a role model. He contributes to the high school community as the president of the FCCLA (Family, Community, and Community Leaders of America), as senior class secretary, and as a VOICE mentor (the high school’s peer mentor program). Edgar hopes all students will learn to see their potential and believe in their dreams. For his Hispanic peers, he wants them to look at him and ask, “If he has big dreams, why can’t I?”

Many of these students’ dreams are born of their parents’ struggles. Ever since she started school, senior Sandra Zamora’s parents have been her motivation. “They have sacrificed so much for me. It makes me proud to know I’m working hard for them. My parents had to fight to get here and overcome so many obstacles.”

Sandra was born in the United States, as were her four siblings. While birthright might make her American, the visits to Mexico to see family instill the Mexican. “It’s cool to have American traditions, but still keep inside of me the Mexican traditions my parents have taught,” she says.
Sandra sees her cultural diversity as an asset. “It’s helped because I’m bilingual. The opportunities are greater. And I can help other kids by translating.”

The translation doesn’t end at school. While her mom is bilingual, her dad is still learning English. In the Zamora household, Spanish is spoken all the time. Because of this, Sandra knew little English when entering kindergarten, despite being born in the United States. “I struggled, along with my parents, to learn the language.”

Sandra’s goals are to graduate high school and attend the University of Idaho, where she plans to study physical education. While she knows there are many scholarships available to Latino students, she believes these opportunities are not seen as a “big deal” in Teton Valley. She suspects this is so because Latino students are not expected to go to college. This population makes up 5 percent of Idaho’s higher education enrollment, according to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, compared to 15 percent of the state’s total K-12 enrollment. Sandra acknowledges that other students may think Latinos “get it easier” because of their race. But she knows the struggles she has had in order to stand out among the student body. As a student, athlete, Latino Club member, and young woman, Sandra wants to influence her peers to choose education as the best opportunity.

One of the driving forces for Latinos to further their education is the Hispanic Youth Symposium sponsored by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). According to the INL’s website, the event began in 1988 to address the 60 percent high-school dropout rate of Hispanic students. Held annually in Sun Valley, the goals of the two-day symposium include mentoring and dropout prevention, instilling a sense of cultural pride, and motivation to pursue higher education. “Sí Se Puede” or “Yes, we can” is the symposium’s theme. Student leaders from Teton High School attend the symposium each year, which attracts some 300 Hispanic Idaho teens.

 

Photo Courtesy of Teton Valley News

At Teton High, the “Yes, we can” message is promoted through the Latino Club, whose mission statement speaks of fundraising, guest speakers, and community service. But the vision runs far beyond programs and finances. Club advisor Lisie Smith says the ultimate goal is to help Latino students succeed in high school and create a desire to further their education. “The student leaders are so driven, it’s rubbing off on their peers,” Lisie says.

Over the past two years, the Latino Club at Teton High School has been growing in size and presence. About forty students are members of the club, and now, for the first time, Hispanic ethnicity is not a requirement for membership. The change is an effort to attract more members, enhance understanding, and increase diversity.

As the high school principal, Jeff Brandt says his goal is to create a community where staff and students are understanding of different cultures. He acknowledges that this will take a cultural shift. “As adults we have to model this,” he says, “and we have to [show] our student leaders [how] to say the right thing and do the right thing.”

Creating a vibrant multi-cultural community starts with the staff. According to Monte Woolstenhulme, school superintendent, “Staff members need to be open and positive about diversity. It can allow the conversations and brainstorming to occur and provide the place for ideas to foster and grow.” He points to the various programs across the school district that support the 28 percent of students who fit the Hispanic demographic, including the LEP and the ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, the bilingual staff in all buildings, and translation of school information and announcements. He would also like to connect Teton High School alumni with current students so they can share their success stories and underscore the possibilities.

But Lulu Montenegro says she does not yet feel a similar sense of support from the Teton Valley community at large. “They don’t know a lot about the high school,” she says. “Either they don’t appreciate it, or they don’t want to bother with us. There is no awareness.” She pauses, then says, “Yet.”

The voice of the Latino student population has long been present—sometimes in English, at other times in Spanish, but most often flowing comfortably between the two. And recent efforts and acknowledgements are raising these voices.

The flaws that people see in me, I recognize as strong points. I am bilingual and passionate about my future. I am American. Mexican. Mexican-American. Chicana. I am Obdulia Zulema Montenegro Lazalde. Y sí se puede ser de aqui y de alla.”

Yes, you can be from here and from there.

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