The way up
Kids shouldn't be forced to leave their homes in hopes of a better future
By Randy Jurado Ertll 11/08/2012
The inner city was my neighborhood. In the 1980s, when I was attending junior high school in South-Central Los Angeles, gang violence was common and respect for teachers was absent. Being a victim of senseless street conflict was something I worked to avoid.
I immersed myself in books, in reading and writing. My first triumph was in eighth-grade, when I won $100 in a school essay contest. My subject was George Washington Carver. My mother was quite proud of my writing achievement.
And it was an achievement. I was born in Los Angeles. When I was 8 months old, US immigration agents arrested my mother and deported her back to El Salvador. She had no choice but to take me with her. We didn't return until I was 5. At school, I was considered an immigrant, and it wasn't until the fourth grade that I learned to read and write in English.
In junior high school, the so-called smart students were invited to attend a workshop about a national program called A Better Chance, or ABC. It provided scholarships to excellent schools far from the inner city. This was during a time in my life when I felt pressured to join a gang. I saw ABC as my big opportunity to escape, and I applied to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, as far away as I could go.
ABC sent me a typed letter saying I hadn’t been selected. I wrote back, in longhand, asking why. It had created and then crushed my hope, I wrote. Save me, I pleaded. ABC officials phoned me. The conversation is still vivid in my memory. They said I had been accepted into the program after all and could attend an academy in Rochester, Minn.
The airplane ticket arrived, and I was gone. I left my mother and two sisters behind, however, which was heartbreaking. As the family's only boy, I saw myself as its protector, though the reality was I couldn't even protect myself.
Except for one Mexican-American boy from East Los Angeles, my housemates in Minnesota were nearly all African American. We went through difficult times learning to accept one another. In South-Central L.A., blacks and Latinos competed for scarce economic and political resources, but at John Marshall High School in Rochester, we learned to care for and respect each other. I grew close to my house directors, who were white. Ethnicity didn't matter.
As a senior in 1991, I read a pamphlet that said Occidental College in the Eagle Rock area of Los Angeles placed an emphasis on learning about multicultural issues. I applied and was accepted. Majoring in politics with a minor in Spanish, I graduated from Occidental with distinction in 1995.
Now I think back to that critical stage in my life, when the ABC program removed me from my environment and prepared me to attend college, to succeed. It assured me I had the capacity to do it. No one could make me feel inferior. In a nation built by immigrants, I learned to find pride in my immigrant family.
A Better Chance turned my dreams into reality. I became a role model in my family and my community. I worked in the environmental movement, in immigrant rights advocacy and in Washington, DC, as a communications director and legislative assistant to Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte). Each step helped shape who I am today.
Now I live in Pasadena, some areas of which are not that different from South-Central Los Angeles. Many of the students I see today remind me of myself when I was going through similar struggles. The job of public school districts is to offer youth a better chance, a quality education and hope, without their having to travel halfway across the country.
Randy Jurado Ertll, author of “Hope in Times of Darkness: A Salvadoran American Experience,” is executive director of the nonprofit El Centro de Accion Social, Inc. in Pasadena.