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'Project Harmony' Strives to Lessen Ethnic Differences

August 23, 1987|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Apolonio Arroyo is, by nature and traditional Mexican upbringing, a cautious, protective father. When his 16-year-old daughter, Claudia, came home from school two months ago seeking permission to attend a national youth conference in Philadelphia this summer, Arroyo hesitated.

He waited two weeks. Then, on the last day to sign the necessary school forms, he approached the dean of students at Mark Keppel High School, Loretta Huang, with a question.

"I asked if Claudia had a choice, if the school required her to be there," recalled the 42-year-old Rosemead jeweler, who emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, five years ago with his wife and three children. "But the dean did not answer me. She only said that it would be good for Claudia and good for the school."

On Monday, an anxious Claudia and three of her Alhambra classmates boarded a plane at Los Angeles International Airport and flew to Philadelphia as part of a nationwide contingent of 200 high school students participating in the four-day conference on democracy and the U. S. Constitution.

For the Mark Keppel group, the conference sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews is part of a yearlong effort on campus, "Project Harmony," to ease tensions between Latino and Asian students.

Since 1980, the school, at the boundary between Alhambra and Monterey Park, has undergone a dramatic change in ethnic composition with the arrival of immigrants from Taiwan and China and refugees from Vietnam. Today, nearly 60% of the school's 2,270 students are Asian, up from 11% just seven years ago. This ranks as one of the highest concentrations of Asian students in the nation.

"Sometimes it's not a very friendly campus," said Aimee Wong, 16, a Mark Keppel senior who accompanied classmates Arroyo, Stephanie Ortega and Kelly Tong on the Philadelphia trip. "We're not only divided by language but by the country we were born in."

Wong and Tong, ethnic Chinese born in the United States, said they have difficulty understanding some Chinese classmates who were born in Vietnam, dress in punk fashions and resist acculturation. They say these students make campus life exasperating for them because Latino and Anglo students often don't distinguish between American-born and foreign-born Chinese.

Keep in Own Groups

"They (foreign-born Chinese) keep in their own little groups, and they sometimes don't try to learn English and how things are here," Wong said. "I think they fear losing their tradition and fear embarrassing themselves if they speak English and make a mistake."

Ortega, 17, said Latino students who recently arrived from Mexico and Central America often don't understand why she has never learned to speak Spanish.

"They make fun of me," Ortega said. "They think I'm trying to be stuck up by not speaking Spanish."

The four teen-agers and a fifth classmate, Terrance Cheung, who flew to the Philadelphia conference from summer school in Washington D. C., were chosen because of their excellent grades and leadership ability, according to school officials. The $130 scholarship fee to attend the conference was paid by the "Little Taipei" Lions Club of Monterey Park.

In June, the five students attended a weeklong human relations camp and workshop, "Brotherhood-Sisterhood USA," sponsored by the Christian-Jewish conference, that sought to break down ethnic stereotypes and improve communication skills.

Along with 11 other Mark Keppel juniors and seniors who are now attending the camp and workshop east of Redlands, the five students will spearhead the effort on campus to ease racial tensions. This effort will culminate at a December camping retreat that will bring together 150 to 200 Asian and Latino students from Mark Keppel.

Part of Same Effort

"The Philadelphia conference and the December camping retreat are part of the same effort to build harmony and a multicultural community on the Mark Keppel campus,' said Glen Poling, a program director for the Christian-Jewish group's Southern California chapter.

"This is a school that has seen a great deal of change in a very short period of time. You've gone from a predominantly Latino population to a predominantly Asian one. You have a high percentage of immigrants, so you have the added tension of newcomers versus established students."

Poling said the effort to ease ethnic tensions on campus actually began last year with a series of cultural awareness workshops involving the school's faculty and staff. And he said the effort will not end with the December camping retreat.

"We want this to be a continuous process. We hope the student leaders will meet periodically to deal with campus tensions, and at some point we want to involve the parents," he said.

Even Apolonio Arroyo has come to support the effort: "This is a good opportunity for Claudia and the other students to know about the Constitution and see another part of America. It will be good for the school."

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