Each morning as I enter the prison-like gates of Gardena High School, I see our dean, Mr. Sieslove with his metal detector in hand, conducting random searches on us as we enter the school. If you were to walk through the hallways of my school, you would see advertisements for football fundraisers, an upcoming dance, or some other mundane school activity. The problem here is that schools like Gardena High are filled with students who should be the first in their family to go to college, yet most of us won’t.
As the first bell rings, we are aggressively corralled into our classes like animals or inmates. Once in class we are constantly told to, “just pass our classes.” If “just passing our classes” is the message here, then there is no way that we are being prepared to become students at a four-year university. As I pause to think about how hard the Chicano Civil Rights activists fought to counter this type of treatment, I am saddened that we, people of color, continue to have to climb the highest hurdles in this society.
AB-540 undocumented students like me are a particularly vulnerable population in this dysfunctional education system because it is completely legal to discriminate against us. Two years ago, my counselor, Ms. Mason-Lockett, scheduled me into the most challenging courses available at my school. By the end of my junior year she took notice of how easily I excelled and began summoning me out of class to help me chart my path to college.
I remember, she once turned to me with uncharacteristic excitement and proclaimed, “Janeth, you’re not just ready to go to college, you have the grades to go to a top UC!.” She then turned her computer screen towards me and pointed out all my A’s and B’s. It was her exaggerated enthusiasm that caught me off guard.
Ms. Mason-Lockett is infamous for her standoffish demeanor. I became excited too! She would paint me beautiful pictures where UC Berkeley or UC Davis were just waiting for me to step onto their campuses. All of this was very flattering and made me feel good about myself.
Without hesitation, she invited me to be part of her new program for academically gifted students. Everything was going great until she asked me for my social security number and I informed her I didn’t have one. She would never again summon me in to her office or try to help me step on to that road to college she once had assured me I was destined for.
I never imagined that discrimination could be such a painful mix of sadness, anger, and powerlessness. From one moment to the next, my legal status had somehow rendered all of my years in gifted programs, hard-earned certificates, and other accomplishments non-existent.
As the realities of being undocumented set in, I was shaken to my core. My very loving and inspirational parents run a modest nopales (edible cactus) business that is just enough for the family to survive on.
Every evening, our family cuts, cleans, and packages them into small plastic bags. I know my parents often worry about the cost of my college education, but in my opinion, the hard-working ethics and values they have instilled in my sister and me have made us unstoppable.
I became so agitated by being marginalized that I was moved to action. I joined my schools peer college councilors program to try to educate myself on how to get to college and help others. Not long after I started telling people I was undocumented and determined to go to college, I found out my friend Liz Soria was also undocumented and together we formed AB-540 Crew. We are a new club on campus that advocates and fights for equality through our AB-540 awareness workshops. We have presented to our PTA and fellow students, and even conducted a Cash-For-College workshop.
My advocacy work on behalf of AB-540 has forever changed the lens I see through. It is difficult to put into words the feelings that come over me each time I see military recruiters targeting my fellow peers.
I’ve learned to recognize that look in their eyes when they know they’ve spotted an insecure senior who doesn’t have top grades and isn’t sure what to do after high school. From my point of view, they look like hungry lions hunting for meat. They lure students with false promises and use our hopes and dreams against us.
I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard them say, “if you join the Army, you’ll be able to buy your mom a house,” or “you’re a smart one, it won’t be too long before you become a general and be above all soldiers.”
I know these are lies because most soldiers are so poor they qualify for food stamps. Although Latinos are over-represented on the frontlines, we are underrepresented as officers in all the armed services.
Beyond quoting statics, I know the military lies to youth because I have witnessed it within my own family. My cousin, David, was aggressively recruited and was proud to join the Marines after high school. I am sure David could have never imagined that serving in the Marines would lead him into a severe depression brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder that would eventually become grounds to discharge him and label him mentally unstable.
Janeth Silva is a senior at Gardena High School and a member of the Women’s Leadership Project and the AB540 Club.