LocationAlhambra , CA United States
A number of students came to the quad at Alhambra High School during lunchtime last Wednesday to listen, reflect and learn about a special population among their classmates. Students from various ethnic backgrounds shared both their own and their families stories of immigrating to the U.S. and the social difficulties they faced acclimating to a new culture.
One student spoke about her mother’s journey from Guatemala to Seattle to Alhambra. She recounted the challenges her mother faced because she had no access to education and was a victim of child labor when growing up. “My mom moved on and ended up here in Alhambra. Not knowing how to speak, read or write in English and Spanish was a challenge for her,” said the student, a senior, who will graduate this year and attend Cal State Dominguez Hill in the Fall.
Another student, a senior and member of IDEAS club, was born in Tijuana, Mexico. His story recounted the trials his parents faced when immigrating to the U.S. under harsh conditions and the difficulties he endured in public school after his journey. “I experienced a lot of bullying in elementary as well as in middle school because of the way I spoke and sounded. I would constantly be the victim of rude and offensive comments…,” he said. Despite the bullying he faced, he hopes to influence and inspire other undocumented students to continue seeking higher education no matter how hard the conditions. “I hope I can be a role model to all those undocumented because if I made it out here, they can make it as well, ” he said.
This event, Speakers Corner, was not a random occasion but part of “Coming Out of the Shadows Week,” a series of events presented by student groups VISA (Voice of Immigrant Students of Alhambra) and IDEAS (Improving Dreams of Equality, Access and Success) that was designed to support and celebrate Alhambra High School’s Dream Center, which officially opened its doors last August. The series was also supported in part by the prominent advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which helped transform the facility into what it is today.
AAAJ has “been working with the district off and on for the past 15 years and they have been instrumental in supporting VISA and IDEAS clubs for the past 5-6 years,” said Javier Gutierrez, Social Science Department Chair at AHS and Co-advisor of VISA. The community organization’s partnership provides various forms of financial support including funds for snacks and materials for the clubs, some staffing and other program aid for the Dream Center.
Daniela Ortiz, AUSD substitute teacher and AHS alum, coordinates the Dream Center along with teacher advisors from student clubs including VISA and IDEAS. According to Ortiz, who also receives a stipend from AAAJ to support the Dream Center, the intention of the Dream Center is to show undocumented students they are not alone: “We believe in them and we want them to realize their potential and because we know that no matter what they do with their future they’re going to need people skills, they’re going to need to know how to tell their own stories.”
Providing a variety of resources such as tutoring and information on immigration, the Dream Center is located on a first floor repurposed classroom with messaging on the walls that identify the space as one of inclusion with content such as posters signed by teachers that say “I AM AN UNAFRAID EDUCATOR”, creatively written pieces from students on the topic of immigration, and a plethora of butterfly inspired imagery. Butterflies are a popular symbol used by groups who support ethnic communities and attempt to invoke a new way to look at migration, and thus immigration, as an act of positive transformation.
The Dream Center—which draws about 40-50 student visitors during lunchtime and about 20-30 after school—functions as a safe social space that allows undocumented students or their allies to spend time if they are looking for support. Students can share their challenges with a counselor, have access to education resources, and ultimately build relationships with their peers or teachers. “[The Dream Center] connects kids. If you’re connected to you school, data shows you’re going to be successful. So, to me, it’s a win-win across the board,” said Duane Russel, Alhambra High School Principal.
Along with the Speakers Corner program, “Coming Out of the Shadows Week” at Alhambra High School also hosted educational screenings on the topic of immigration at the Dream Center, invited parents to take a tour of the Dream Center resources, and organized an after school open house that was open to the public. The closing event, The DREAM Center Open House, had live music, free food, and invited community members to tour the Center and invoked them to think about ways they can support students. Dream Centers from colleges in neighboring cities were also invited to table the events and talk to students with the purpose of addressing fears that undocumented students can’t safely attend college.
What is now the nationally celebrated “Coming Out of the Shadows Week” began in 2010 in Chicago, Illinois with a group of college students coming out and declaring that they are undocumented and unafraid despite the state of immigration policy in the U.S. Now the national immigrant rights movement is celebrated in cities and campuses across the country, with the core purpose being to promote spaces where alternate immigrant status individuals can share their journeys with mainstream audiences.
An AUSD measure titled “BOE Resolution on Commitment to Ensure Safe Haven”, which was passed on January 10, 2017, stated that the district is dedicated to protecting their student’s information and safety. THE SCHOOL DISTRICT SAYS the Dream Center is the first of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley. AUSD has prioritized its commitment to protect its students, undocumented or otherwise.
Community leaders who came to support the events included Alhambra School Board President Robert Gin, newly elected board member Wing Ho and AUSD Superintendent Denise Jaramillo. Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler, and City Council member Ross Maza were also in attendance. Ho remarked on the value of communities coming together to support and uplift each other, “as a district as a whole we are really committed to relationship building as the centerpiece of education especially with the multicultural community…this is really important for us.”
According to Travis Corona, Social Science Teacher and IDEAS club advisor, approximately 16% of AHS students are English Learners and have often been in the country for less that 5 years by the time they become a high school student and 70% of residents in the San Gabriel Valley speak a language other than English. With this diverse student body and high rate of multiple ethnic backgrounds, safe spaces for the undocumented and immigrants are in demand. “It’s hard enough being a teenager. I think the bigger point is feeling that sense of belonging. A lot of times, some of the immigrant students and undocumented students might not have a connection with a lot of [the traditional] American high school culture,” said Corona.
With immigration statistics written in chalk around campus, allies wearing butterfly pins to show solidarity, and student engagement being at the center of the series of events, “Coming Out of the Shadows Week” allowed students to share their experiences without fear in a supportive setting.
Visit the Alhambra High School Special Populations webpage for more information on applying to college as an undocumented student and other education resources.