Students share their stories at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Taped to the walls of their high school cafeteria are the stories of how they got here:
"I came … to the U.S. by car," one girl wrote in orange marker. "A guy made the officers believe that I was his daughter."
In pink marker, another described a father who had come to Los Angeles in 1992, working until he saved enough money for his wife and child to follow.
In a six-week summer program, these students are discussing topics that rarely come up during the school year. Led by instructors who grew up without legal status themselves, the youngsters are studying immigrant rights and learning ways to improve their neighborhoods, their schools and their country.
For some, the journey to America began with a harrowing border crossing. For others, the journey belonged to their parents. Some are in the country illegally and worry about how they will go to college when they can't get federal financial aid. Some are U.S. citizens who live in constant fear that their parents will be deported.
"I learned to use my voice. I heard a lot of stories about how others were undocumented and had a harsh time fitting in. I related to them," said a 10th grader who asked that her name not be used because her parents are in the country illegally. "I have papers, but I went through a lot of discrimination."
With about 20 students, the immigration-focused summer program is in its first year at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Westlake. It is one of nearly 200 Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools around the country.
The Freedom Schools, which began teaching reading skills and civil rights history to African American children in 1992, now serve a more diverse population. Broad themes are prescribed, but each school can design its own curriculum.
Among the books the Contreras students read this summer were "Underground Undergrads," about UCLA students without papers, and "Undocumented and Unafraid," about the immigrant youth movement.
"The topic has been normalized. We make it a safe and open place to share any aspect of their identity," said Fabiola Inzunza, co-executive director of the program at Contreras. "Because they come from an immigrant background, that's some of what they share with us."
Most of the Freedom School students attend the School of Social Justice at Miguel Contreras, where Principal Nova Meza estimated that at least a third of her students are in the country illegally. Many others have parents who lack legal status. Immigration is part of the regular 11th-grade curriculum, but the discussion tends to be more abstract than personal, Meza said.
Inzunza and the other Freedom School instructors attended UCLA despite having no documentation. They are active in the immigrant rights movement and recently obtained work permits through the federal deferred action program. The students see that their immigration status does not have to hold them back.
"They really talk about immigrant rights and the Dream Act. I could learn a lot and be like one of these people, be like Sofia who is fighting for the Dream Act," said one girl who came to the country illegally from Mexico when she was six, referring to co-executive director Sofia Campos.
In a lesson about how the media portrays Latino immigrants, the students used the words "robberies," "drugs," "violent," "criminals," "illegals."
Then, they brainstormed about how they would like to be portrayed: "hardworking," "honest," "trustworthy."
This summer's budget of about $80,000 comes from the Miguel Contreras Foundation, UCLA Labor Center, the Children's Defense Fund and the California Endowment. Organizers hope the program will continue next year with a new group of students.
In an interview after class, a girl who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico when she was two said that she was denied a financial award in elementary school because she had no Social Security number.
"It really brought my hopes down," she said. "My mom used to say, 'It's OK, just study.' I said, 'I don't have papers, so what's the whole point?' "
One 17-year-old incoming senior who was born in the U.S. worries that his parents might be deported back to Guatemala.
"Every day I think about it, every day when I wake up," he said.
But the Freedom School, with its emphasis on civil rights history, has taught him that he can play a part in changing his family's situation.
"Now immigrants, Hispanics are fighting for the same things — freedom, equality, to be treated like everybody else."