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CREATING TWO-PART HARMONY : Camp Workshop Helps Suspicious Asian, Latino Students From Mark Keppel High School Explore Their Racial Prejudices

December 20, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was really good will and the spirit of understanding that got the 90 teen-agers together, hugging each other and clasping hands as if they were at a big family reunion.

But most of the racially diverse group of Mark Keppel High School students who participated last weekend in Project Harmony, which its organizers called a "human relations workshop," will tell you that it took a cranky confrontation and some ugly talk about racial stereotypes to bring them all together.

"The turning point?" said one ebullient young Latino, getting ready to return to his home in Monterey Park after an emotional two days at a camp in the La Crescenta foothills. "It was when Terrance and Ruddy got into it."

By then, that was all water under the bridge, of course. The confrontation between Terrance Cheung and Ruddy Avila had occurred ages ago, it seemed, long before the group had collectively vowed to promote a "non-discriminatory, friendly, understanding, respectful, trusting, open, caring, unifying community" at their Alhambra school.

But that brief face-off, with the American-born Chinese youth criticizing "catcalling" Latinos for harassing Asian girls and the Mexican-American accusing the Chinese youth of "disrespect," had reeked of the mistrust that, officials say, has permeated the Alhambra school in recent years like swamp gas.

It also began the process of clearing the air.

Group mistrust at Keppel in recent years has been played out against a background of rapid social change, say officials of the Alhambra School District and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which co-sponsored the workshop.

What had been a predominantly Latino school five years ago is quickly turning into an Asian enclave. Monterey Park, where most of Keppel's students live, has become the destination for thousands of Asian immigrants. The city, whose population was 14% Asian in 1970, has evolved into the nation's first suburban Chinatown, with a population just over 50% Asian.

The changes are apparent at Keppel. Of its 2,667 students, 60% are Asian, most of them foreign-born, and 38% Latino. Community resentment has spilled over into the school.

"They hear it from their parents and bring it to school," says Mary Lou Perez, Keppel's community coordinator. "There's a lot of anger."

Mostly, the influx of new groups has produced a stubborn cliquishness among the students, says Maria Luisa Barajas, a school librarian who served as co-chairman of Project Harmony.

"There's been a splintering of the campus," she said. Extracurricular activities have been divided up among racial groups: Latinos dominate the football team, and American-born Chinese control student government. Tight little subgroups cluster warily in the lunchroom.

"It's not a good, wholesome learning situation if people look at each other through their prejudices," said Barajas, one of 20 adults from the school who participated in the workshop.

The National Conference of Christians and Jews, a human relations orgaization that has attacked prejudice for 60 years, began working in the school a year ago. It trained student leaders, got adults involved and devised an experimental two-day program to foster understanding--an odd mixture of pep rally, revival meeting, Esalen-style sensitivity training, rap session and songfest.

The students arrived at rustic Max Straus Camp on Dec. 10, tumbling out of a pair of buses, unloading sleeping bags and overnight kits, loudly invading the Jewish Big Brother camp like a group of light-hearted summer campers.

Despite the boisterous arrival, though, they were soon engaged in serious business. The students, housed in cabins in small, racially mixed groups, participated in a general meeting where they sang songs such as "Lean on Me" and engaged in spirited "ice-breakers" with a succession of students leading cheers.

There was resistance from the start. Terrance Cheung, plucked from the crowd by one of the adult leaders during the pep rally part of the program, stood on the stage, punched the air and thrust his pelvis provocatively in leading a cheer. Some Latino youngsters turned away, raising their eyebrows.

Others talked morosely about the deteriorating state of affairs at the school. "There's a whole lot of lack of respect," said Ralph Gonzalez. "Last year, an Oriental guy came up behind me in the bathroom and stuck a knife against my back. 'I don't like the clothes you wear,' he said."

In smaller meetings, students reviewed the events of the day. Peter Cha looked suspiciously at his cabin mates and confessed: "I'm not sure I did the right thing by coming here."

And Cambodian-born Johnny Taing said: "The reason I came here was to get away from my parents, to get some peace and freedom."

On Friday, in "racially separate" meetings, students talked about racial stereotypes and rivalries within groups.

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