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Voice of Experience : Painful Memories Buoy Leticia Quezada's Fight for Bilingual Schools


Leticia Quezada is reliving her immigrant experience: She is 13 and in the eighth grade. A former straight-A student in Juarez, Mexico, she is getting F's at a new school in Pittsburg, Calif. Determined to make sense of the foreign language filling her ears, she drills herself to the point of exhaustion every night, sleeps with a dictionary under her pillow and attends classes religiously.

"I experienced a lot of trauma, alienation, anger and embarrassment," Quezada, 36, says, recalling the cultural barriers she faced as an adolescent immigrant.

She, a younger sister and her widowed mother had abandoned their adobe home in a squatters community across the border from El Paso. Tex., and immigrated to California after her father died of tuberculosis.

"Those were the most difficult times of my life," Quezada recalls, "because my father always instilled in me the desire to have a good education, and here I wasn't learning anything in the classroom."

It was a time of her life that eventually inspired a fierce commitment to bilingual education and Latino parent involvement in the schools. As only the third Latino (and first Latina) to serve on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Quezada now has the power to help realize that commitment.

"Because of my own experiences as a child who was Spanish-speaking and struggling, poor and powerless, I want to help make a change," she says of her role as the District 5 board member who represents 540,000 Angelenos, including 150,000 students attending 103 schools.

But too often, she says, her enthusiasm for bilingual education is criticized by members of Los Angeles' Anglo and African-American communities who ask, " 'Why does it appear that you only care about Latino children?' "

"I say I care for all the children in the district," Quezada says. "I think all the children should be bilingual. It makes sense in this, a multicultural city in a multicultural state in a multicultural nation.

"I say to my critics, 'It's not that I only care about Latino children but they are the children whose interests I am supposed to represent.' " (Sixty-two percent of the students in the school district are Latino and half of them are limited in their English proficiency; about 90% of the students represented by Quezada are Latino.)

From East Los Angeles to Eagle Rock and Mt. Washington, from El Sereno to the southeast cities of Bell, Huntington Park, Maywood, Cudahy and Vernon, Quezada says the needs of the Latino students in District 5 "are so great and the track record of this school district serving their needs and enabling them to be productive citizens is so atrocious."

She emphasizes her point with statistics that she repeats to other school board members, teachers, principals, legislators and parents.

"Last year 50% of our school district's 17,000 dropouts in grades 9 to 12 were Latino students. Last year, 980,000 bachelor degrees were awarded in this country and only 27,000 went to Latinos."

Quezada says statistics like these drive her toward change, and talking about that change reminds her of her childhood again.

She is helping her mother, Lola, and father, Feliciano, make clay bricks from sand and straw that they carried up a hill to build a three-room adobe house. They moved from a cardboard shack with a dirt floor and no electricity or plumbing to the house on the hill with a back-yard swing.

"My father believed in changing. We grew up poor but he knew we wouldn't be squatters forever," says the woman who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz in 1975 and a year later, a master's degree in education from Cal State Sacramento.

Eleven years later, she was carrying the banner for the district's "Master Plan for the Education of the Limited English Proficient Students" who currently number 187,000. Of that total, 165,000 speak Spanish.

The Master Plan--as it is more commonly known--was adopted in 1987, Quezada's first year in office. It addresses the need for more bilingual teachers and spells out how the district can train teacher assistants to become bilingual teachers.

Quezada fought and won to get a $5,000 salary incentive for bilingual teachers--the highest given to bilingual teachers in the country. Her plan also includes a rigorous college program for teaching assistants--who number 10,000 and include college students interested in education and mothers working part-time for years at schools--to reach full-fledged bilingual teacher status.

"We hire about 2,000 teachers in the school district a year, but unfortunately we don't hire the number of bilingual teachers that we want and that we need," she says. "I'm hoping that through the process of a career ladder that we can basically grow our own."

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