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WATTS : Latino Parents Learn to Be Leaders

July 17, 1994|ENRIQUE LAVIN

Caged in one's own neighborhood; afraid to speak out because no one will listen. These are but two of the feelings many Latino parents have about their community.

Solutions to concerns like these were addressed in a free, four-month leadership program that recently graduated 50 parents, teaching them how to become leaders in their communities.

The Parent Leadership Program was sponsored by the nation's leading Latino civil rights organization, the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"This program has opened our eyes because, for the most part, we've lived marginalized lives for being Spanish-speakers," graduate Sonia Morningstar said in Spanish. "So many doors have been shut because of the language barrier."

"The program is designed to teach parents organizational skills, to become active in the community and to develop political empowerment," said Marta Samano, director of leadership development at MALDEF.

It is also designed to teach parents the ins and outs of the Los Angeles Unified School District, how to guide their children toward college, how to build community-based groups to help themselves, how to deal with immigration issues, and how to relate to African Americans, who have a long history in South-Central.

Representatives from the school district and leaders from community organizations such as One-Stop Immigration and the Watts/Century Latino Organization conducted the weekly two-hour workshops at each school. The program is at the start of a five-year run.

"This is very grass roots, primarily for monolingual Latino parents," said Samano, who also wants to prepare parents for roles in parent councils, such as the Parent-Teacher Assn.

"The program is something that we have been needing for a long time," said graduate Jaime Simon Zeledon, a father of four children who attend area schools. "When the mass media talk about Watts, people think that it's made up of mostly African Americans, when in fact it's mostly Latino."

Samano said student bodies at several area schools are largely Latino, but because the number of Latino teachers is notably smaller, Latino parents and their children believe they are underrepresented. According to a fall survey by the school district, for example, 44.7% of the 1,075 students at 102nd Street Elementary School are Latino, as are six of 58 teachers. Markham Middle School, with 1,475 students, is 55% Latino, with five Latino teachers out of 69.

A low number of Spanish-speaking staff employees, a lack of programs that focus on Latino culture and history and minute representation in parent councils are some of the grievances parents and students have.

A Mexican national who is married to a Native American, Morningstar is a PTA volunteer at John Muir Middle School, which one of her daughters attends.

"It's very nice to be able to communicate among parents, our children and the teachers," she said. Now Morningstar is starting to get involved in the PTA at Manual Arts High School, where another daughter is enrolled.

For Martha E. Obregon, a mother of three Markham students, the program has taught her more about her rights as a parent: "Watts is a community that has many services and organizations. What happened is that because we didn't feel empowered, we didn't take advantage of what was out there. Now we feel we can go out and tell other parents to join the same cause . . . so they can help their children too."

Information: (213) 629-2517, Ext. 126.

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