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The Great Divide : They've fled poverty and even wars in their homelands. Now, immigrant children face ridicule and exclusion by many of their U.S.-born Latino classmates.

November 17, 1995|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Virginia Gomez wanted to share a story.

The 13-year-old eighth-grader and her friends--all American-born Latinas--were walking past three Mexican immigrant sixth-graders after school recently. One of the younger children was sipping from a soda can. Suddenly, one of Virginia's friends bopped the bottom of the can.

"Wham! The soda spilled all over the little girl," Virginia recalled. As she and her friends walked away, the immigrant student muttered a Spanish obscenity.

" 'What? You want to start something?' " Virginia's friend asked the now-frightened girl. " 'Tell me to my face . . . Wetback!' "

"We're all proud of being Mexican," said Virginia--who was born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents--as she talked about the on-campus incident the day after it occurred at Nimitz Middle School in Huntington Park.

"But the thing is we see ourselves as different even though we have the same culture," she said. "We're American and they're not."

Virginia's story embodies all the elements of a conflict that plagues many Latino students today: the alienation and prejudice that divide American-born Latino kids and their immigrant classmates. The students often segregate themselves during lunchtime, on the basketball court, at school dances, and while hanging out on campus before and after school.

A language barrier coupled with an unfamiliar teen culture--the culture of the popular American Latino kids who wear baggy clothes with Doc Martens or Nikes and listen to deep-house and hip-hop--adds to the problem of assimilation for immigrant students.

In most cases, students agree, it's the American-born Latinos who ridicule the immigrants.

They make fun of the immigrant boys who dress in white buttoned shirts instead of T-shirts and high-water cotton trousers instead of oversized jeans. They ridicule the immigrant girls in their ruffled starched blouses and pleated skirts and braids tied with bows. They make fun of the immigrant children's shyness, respectfulness and dedication to academics.

The U.S.-born Latinos call the Mexican kids " quebradita people" because of their banda music and quebradita dances. They make fun of the immigrants' "nerdy" Mickey Mouse-adorned backpacks and have even coined a term for them: "Wetpacks."

They call the immigrant students other names--"beaner," "Wehac" (a derogatory term for a Mexican immigrant of Indian descent) and tell them to "go back where you come from." Immigrant students at Nimitz reported that when they run around the track in gym class, American-born teens shout "Corrale! Corrale! La Migra! La Migra!" ("Run! Immigration!")

Brad Pilon, a bilingual school psychologist with the Los Angeles Unified School District, works with about 70 schools--most with a majority Latino enrollment--in the mid-city area, including Belmont High School's Newcomer Center, which helps hundreds of recent non-English speaking immigrants adjust in school.

"These kids feel the segregation, they live it," Pilon said. "They get beat up, get lunches stolen, are laughed at in their faces" by U.S.-born Latinos, he said. Often the immigrant student is too scared to report the harassment. Also, Pilon said, students soon learn that if they were to report such incidents, "nothing would be done" because overloaded teachers and administrators often aren't aware the problem exists.

"The immigrant kids, especially the newest arrivals, are naive, open and most of all vulnerable when they come to school," Pilon said. "When they first come here, like anybody who moves anywhere, they are faced with the problem of fitting in."

For most, fitting in is their dream even though they often view American kids as lazy, unmotivated and disrespectful to their parents and teachers.

Ramon A. Gutierrez, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of California, San Diego, said this Latino rift is not something new. He cited a 10-year-old study conducted in the San Jose area, where a researcher found four Latino groups that segregated themselves from each other in one school--"the recent lower-income Mexican immigrant; the middle-class Mexican immigrant; the acculturated Chicano kids and the cholo kids, lower-income Mexican Americans."

"There have always been tensions and stresses between individuals of a remote immigrant past and recent immigrants," he said. "What it boils down to is discrimination based not only on immigrant status," Gutierrez said, but also on language and social class.

"If you went to Beverly Hills High, you'd find lower-class white kids segregated from the wealthier kids. It's segregation based on social standing," he said.

*

Rene Estrella, a leadership class adviser and biology teacher at Belmont High School, where 90% of the 4,500 enrollment is Latino, said immigrant Latino students "take the brunt of discrimination" from American-born students because "The people who are privileged to be born here think that they are superior to the person who was not.

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