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Tension between Asian and Latino students in the Alhambra School District has climbed to a fever pitch. Occasional violence has officials scrambling to bridge . . . : Racial Rifts on Campus

June 10, 1993|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

It's lunchtime at San Gabriel High School. Here are the Asian students, clustered on the grassy knoll. Over there are the Latino students, gathered around the cafeteria tables.

There's little inter-ethnic mingling on this 3,232-student campus, where most of the student body is evenly split between Asians and Latinos.

"I say 'hi' to them, but we stay to ourselves, that's just the way it is," says Angelica, 16, a Mexican-American clad in the teen grunge of flannel shirt and torn jeans. "Chinese are kind of conceited. They don't want to talk to us. They're always putting Mexicans down. . . . You should see the cars they drive. Honda Accords, BMWs. And we have to walk home from school."

"I'm not prejudiced, but I don't like Mexicans," says Diane, 17, a Cambodian student with a scoop-front blouse from the pages of Sassy. Her friends agree. "It's hard to get to know them. Some of them 'dog' you, they give you dirty looks. They think they're better than you."

Tension and mutual suspicion between Asian and Latino students in the Alhambra School District have climbed to such pervasive levels that a Pitzer College professor is embarking on a study of race relations at the schools. Parents have grown alarmed enough about what they see and hear from their children to form a human relations committee.

Their aim is to ease the resentment and misunderstanding that comes when ethnic groups that historically have had little contact suddenly find themselves sharing close quarters--in this case, the Southwest San Gabriel Valley. And in the case of the schools, the quarters are close indeed, as high schools built for 1,500 students each now enroll 3,000.

While adults can retreat to ethnic enclaves within the region, students must crowd for hours together in classes.

At home, the youngsters often speak an immigrant parent's native language, eat distinctive traditional foods, worship in different faiths.

In the morning, they leave those worlds for school, where they are expected to share thoughts about the class topic of the day, cooperate in team sports and share scarce school supplies.

Little wonder that campuses have become lightning rods for race-charged conflicts over grades, dates, turf and even accidental pushing in busy halls.

Last February, the tensions boiled over in two days of fistfights at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra. Police arrested five Asian and seven Latino students and confiscated seven knives, a piece of sharpened glass and a loaded gun. School officials expelled 24 students and recommended that those arrested be prosecuted for hate crimes. Three were eventually charged with battery; their cases are pending. The rest were not charged.

"I wish I could rationalize it," Rudy Chavez, Mark Keppel's principal of 10 years, says grimly. "We've observed threats and violence that seem to be motivated only by the fact that (the students involved) are from different ethnic backgrounds."

Fistfights between Asians and Latino students are still the exception in the school district, which serves parts of Monterey Park, San Gabriel, Rosemead and Alhambra and whose student population is 49% Asian and 39% Latino, with the rest divided among Anglos and various other ethnic groups. Before this year, the last serious racial violence occurred in 1991, when a group of Latino students beat up two Chinese brothers at San Gabriel High School.

But the incidents crystallized a persistent racial tension that bubbles below the surface of daily school life, "like a volcano that has to explode," says one student.

Not everyone feels it; teachers say extroverted students who have adopted more of American culture move between groups easily. John Tran, a 17-year-old Vietnamese youth, plays on the basketball team at Mark Keppel and is well-known for his athletic prowess.

"I don't feel no pressure," John says. "I hang around more with Latinos than Asians. I do a lot of sports. Everybody knows me."

But the John Trans aren't that easy to find on campus; more common are students eager to talk about how racial tension and sporadic violence affects campus life, their words tumbling out quickly and with strong emotion. But don't use my name, they add hastily. I don't want to get jumped.

Nancy, a 17-year-old junior at Mark Keppel, explains why she no longer uses the washbasin in campus bathrooms. "I don't feel safe," says the Chinese teen-ager. "In the restroom, the Latinos will be up closer to the mirror and the Asians will be back. I won't go up to the mirror."

Daniel shares his classmate's fears, but the 17-year-old Latino junior feels threatened by Asians. "You can feel it when you walk down the halls. You get called wetback, dirty Mexican," he says.

The racial divisions persist despite a new state curriculum that stresses a multicultural approach to history and despite schoolwide celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Chinese New Year. Sometimes the lines divide adults as well as students.

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