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Standing Apart

Latino Barrio Youth Weighed Down by Stereotypes, Economics in Fight to Succeed

February 19, 2001|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At Rio Mesa High north of Oxnard, the barrio kids from La Colonia huddle during the lunch hour on the handball courts near the gymnasium, a tightknit group of neighborhood friends burdened by stereotype as much as reputation.

The same is true for the Cabrillo Village boys at Buena High in Ventura, who position themselves along a cinder-block wall outside the administration building.

They stand apart, these barrio youngsters, from the white kids on campus, apart even from other Latinos.

And it's the same story across Ventura County.

The students are separated not so much by race as by economic class, a widening divide that many educators and Latino advocates fear is pushing poor kids from the barrios toward a long, dark downward spiral.

It is as if they are branded in some fundamental way simply because of where they come from, neighborhoods that are mostly poor and nearly all Latino--tagged by some people as gang kids and lumped together as children headed for trouble and failure.

"I think there is a huge divide and it's getting worse," says Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, a La Colonia product and the county's highest-ranking Latino elected official.

"For a lot of kids, it's becoming harder and harder to make it out of the barrio," he said. "Some people are doing what they can to improve things, but nobody is really doing enough."

Adds Ventura Unified School District Supt. Joseph Spirito: "We've got to change a lot of attitudes. We've got to set the bar higher and higher for all kids, not just for the wealthy children, not just for the white children."

Rio Mesa senior Eric Soto knows about the divide firsthand.

A student once enrolled in the gifted and talented program in his elementary school, the 17-year-old Colonia native remembers a time when school held much promise. He played trumpet in Rio Mesa's marching band and mariachi group. He thought about going to college and exploring his musical talent.

Those dreams, however, were derailed last year when he began cutting class, drawn more to hanging out with friends than doing schoolwork. Now scrambling to graduate on time, he blames no one but himself.

But he also suspects had he grown up outside the ghetto, someone might have stepped in to correct his wayward course.

"A lot of people, they just look at how we're dressed and who we kick it with and they automatically think we're gang-related," said Soto, who considers himself lucky to still be in the hunt for a diploma when so many of his friends have dropped out of school altogether.

"They think we're dumb and that ain't right," he said. "Some of us are smart too. Some of us want to learn, but they won't teach us. All they see are Colonia Mexicans."

*

For many of those who live in the barrio, and many who have scratched their way out, there is a growing belief that there are two groups of Latinos in Ventura County.

There are those who are steadily filtering into the mainstream, young people who are connecting with school and preparing to take part in a rising tide of prosperity washing over Latinos across the Southwest.

Then there are those who are poor and living on the margin, kids who every day grapple with problems that have undermined barrio communities for decades.

Those problems extend beyond Ventura County.

Deborah Santiago, director of a White House initiative to boost Latino achievement, said she has found that educators nationwide engage in negative stereotyping of Latino students, set lower expectations for them and more often than not track them into general education rather than college prep classes.

This isn't just an immigrant story, Santiago said, but one of first- and second-generation Latino youngsters languishing in increasingly isolated pockets of poverty.

"There's no question that these problems are very much tied to socioeconomic status and much more concentrated in the barrio," she said. "We are creating a society of haves and have-nots, and those on the lower end simply are not being provided the same opportunities."

Many kids from more affluent communities have problems too, of course. And there are plenty of barrio kids who do well in school.

But in the barrios of Ventura County--from the Avenue area on Ventura's west end to smaller, low-income Latino neighborhoods in Moorpark, Simi Valley and Camarillo--the problems are deeply ingrained and the wreckage more readily apparent.

"Too often for these kids it means they'll grow up in substandard housing, they'll go to substandard schools and be taught by substandard teachers, they'll have fewer opportunities to get good jobs and they'll live with the distinct possibility of becoming familiar faces with law enforcement," said Oxnard attorney Oscar Gonzalez, who was born in La Colonia and raised in barrio neighborhoods in Santa Paula and Fillmore.

"There's been tremendous progress made by Latinos over the years in achieving economic and social justice," he added. "But there are still very isolated pockets of poverty where not much has changed in the last 50 years."

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