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Rockers help students roll on toward understanding

Members of Ozomatli visit Hawthorne High for a discussion of immigration reform, capitalism, equal rights and community development. A teacher had set the Bill of Rights to one of the group's melodies.

January 23, 2013|By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times
(Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

In Wesley Perez's AP U.S. history and government classes at Hawthorne High School, the Bill of Rights weren't just taught. They were sung.

Perez took funk-infused Latino beats from Los Angeles rockers Ozomatli and wrote his own lyrics to the band's song "After Party."

Oye Baby, oye mami, how I love the Bill of Rights

The first right is freedom of speech, freedom of the cross, and freedom of the press is tight…

On Tuesday, the band furthered its contribution to Perez's class by showing up at Hawthorne's Nyman Hall to discuss immigration reform, capitalism, equal rights and community development.

The 29-year-old teacher wrote to the band after seeing how his constitutional remix helped his students improve their grades.

"It's provided us a new method of learning that's not a textbook," said Courtnie Brown, 17. "It's easier to remember song lyrics than something you've read."

But the lesson was more than just a history lecture. Perez said his students are exposed to gang wars and violence in Hawthorne and nearby Lennox, and that Hawthorne High has developed a bad reputation after years of racial tension between student groups.

"The biggest goal for me was to empower the kids and make them feel like they matter and they have a voice," he said.

As two band members made their way down the theater aisles, notably missing their usual marching drum intro, the enthusiastic crowd of more than 160 students drowned out all other sounds with their roar.

A Cuban American student asked the pair their take on immigration reform and how it related to the song "La Temperatura," or The Temperature, which was written after a May Day march in downtown Los Angeles.

"It inspired us to feel that energy of what it means when people take it to the streets and really bring up important issues that have to be dealt with," said Ulises Bella, who plays saxophone. "It felt like there was a fire in the crowd."

But the song wasn't about only immigration issues in the United States, he said.

Ozomatli served as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department in 2009 and traveled to Myanmar (also known as Burma), Vietnam and Thailand. The trip — paired with the band's own tours around the globe — highlighted the struggles of immigrants in other countries.

"So we started switching the idea of what it means for somebody to leave their country, leave their families, leave everything they know and love and gamble it in a new place."

Daniel Morales, a 17-year-old senior, wondered what the inspiration was behind "Gay Vatos in Love."

As a gay Latino, he said he's been bullied and isn't accepted at home by his family, but the song has helped him feel like he's not alone.

"We believe that gay and lesbian people have basic rights like everyone else," said Raul Pacheco, Ozomatli's vocalist and lead guitarist. "We took a stand and said, 'This is what we believe in' and I'm very proud you can come up here and ask that question."

After a lengthy round of questions and answers, Perez gathered one of his classes to help him perform "After Party: The Bill of Rights Remix."

Bella and Pacheco soon joined the jam session and delivered an encore of "La Temperatura" and "Aquí No Será."

"You never know what to expect when you walk into a high school," Pacheco said as he walked to his car. "They were so energetic and receptive and they were definitely not throwing any softball questions."

dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

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