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The State | COLUMN ONE

Cultural Divide on Campus

At Montebello High, as elsewhere in the state, Latinos split between the more Americanized and those more drawn to their immigrant roots.

December 03, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

During lunch, there is a line at Montebello High School that students on either side rarely cross. Part gravel, part grass, it runs between a row of bungalows and buildings, lopping off the short end of the L-shaped quad.

They call this the border.

It separates rock music from ranchero. Cheerleaders from folklorico dancers. English from Spanish.

To outsiders, students at Montebello High are mostly the same: 93% Latino, 70% low-income. But the 2,974 Latino students on campus know otherwise. As at many schools in California, students here are delicately split -- in classes, sports and clubs, at social events and at lunch -- between those who seem more Americanized and those who feel more connected to their Latino immigrant roots.

Students call one side of the campus "TJ," as in the Mexican city of Tijuana. During lunch and break periods, students who hang out in TJ gossip, chat and flirt mostly in Spanish. From homes where Spanish is the primary language, many are still learning English. Besides soccer, folklorico and the Spanish club, few students in TJ are involved in extracurricular activities on campus.

On the other side of the border, in an area with a brightly painted quad and a new cafeteria, is Senior Park. This is where students immersed in traditional American high school culture hang out. They include football and basketball players, student government leaders and members of the water polo and drill teams. Many students here come from Mexican American families that have been in California for several generations. English is the predominant language. Some don't know Spanish.

The groups don't hate each other. Some cross between the two sides and have friends on both. But some talk bitterly about a divide. Others acknowledge it as inevitable, even if they wish it weren't.

"It's like two countries," said senior Lucia Rios, 17, a Mexican American with blond-highlighted hair who wants everyone on campus to mix more. Rios is co-captain of the drill team and eats lunch in the Senior Park area. She is proud of her Mexican heritage, but relates to American culture. Rios' parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as teenagers, stopped speaking to her in Spanish when she was 5 years old.

Rios has never spent lunch in TJ. Most students who hang out there "relate to the culture of Mexico," she said. "If I was to go to TJ, they would look at me weird like, 'Why is she here?' "

On the other side, in TJ, Alex Blanco, 17, ate lunch under two small trees near the school theater. This is where he and other members of the folklorico dance team spend time. Blanco said he never travels to Senior Park because, he said, "It is too far." Blanco came to the U.S. from El Salvador six years ago. He said people made fun of him because he spoke only Spanish. At first, he was sad. But now, he said, "I'm proud of who I am. I won't get [mad] at what they say."

But his friends get mad.

Students in Senior Park "think they are so much better than us because they were born right here," said Blanco's buddy, Cecilia Ochoa, 14, a sophomore who moved to the U.S. from Mexico four years ago.

The bell rang. A student shouted "Vamonos!" Ochoa headed to her fifth-period class. She went through an alley between buildings, avoiding Senior Park. "I don't talk to people over there," she said. "I don't know them."

Montebello High illustrates a larger issue of how California and its schools have changed, said Chon Noriega, director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. Last year, 14% of the state's schools had Latino enrollments of 80% or higher, according to a Times analysis.

Nobody expects a mostly white campus to be monolithic. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that Montebello High isn't either, Noriega said. Yet some non-Latinos are oblivious to the differences, he said, because the public thinks "about Latinos in very broad terms," like economic and political power.

The split, he said, is natural and something Californians should understand. "It's important for the schools to take these differences into account," he said. "Otherwise the schools will fail in taking a cookie cutter approach" to a diverse population.

About 28% of Montebello High's students, or 781, are still learning English in a variety of programs. An additional 46% of students, or 1,285, grew up speaking Spanish but are now considered "proficient" in English, although some still prefer speaking Spanish.

At first glance, some test scores seem to show that some English learners need extra help. Last year, only 12% of the sophomore and junior English learner students who took the California High School Exit Exam passed the math portion, while 22% passed the English portion. In contrast, 34% of English-only students passed the math part and 67% the English part.

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