Latino students at Lexington high school wrote book about their U.S. experiences

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 9, 2013 

The words, by Ana Contreras, are from Living Out Loud: Our Stories, Our Struggles, a new book written by Latino students at Lexington's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. The writers describe what it's like growing up and attending school in a sometimes alien — and not always welcoming — country.

All proceeds from sales of the book will be used for scholarships for Latino students at Dunbar, where about 14 percent of the student population is Latino. The book retails for $9.99 and is available on Amazon.com. It will also be available soon at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington.

The idea for the book came from members of Latino Outreach Leaders, an organization at Dunbar created by Latino students.

The book's publication marks a big moment for the students, said Maria Ortiz, 18, a founder and former president of Latino Outreach Leaders who graduated from Dunbar last month. She read selections from the book Thursday night at Teen Howl, a once-a-month reading of poetry by middle and high schoolers at The Morris Book Shop.

"I really hope it inspires Latino kids and shows them that they can succeed," Ortiz said. "Many times, they don't have a support system. Our club's basic goal is to get Latino students excited about school and feeling empowered. We don't want to see them drop out."

The story of the book, and the club that created it, goes back four years, when Dunbar social studies teacher Sharessa Crovo noticed that some of the Latino students in her ninth-grade social studies class weren't trying.

They were bright kids, capable of mastering classroom work. But they were shutting down.

Crovo started asking them why.

They replied, "Why bother?"

Crovo was surprised to learn that many of the students were not born in the United States and were undocumented, which effectively locked them out of consideration for scholarships and most college financial-aid programs, which typically require proof of citizenship. The discouraged students saw no hope for college and little reason to study.

"They were telling me these stories, and I'd never heard anything like it," Crovo said. "Many of the kids had come here when they were only 2 or 3 years old. But because they were undocumented they were kind of living in the shadows.

"They said things like, 'What's the point?' They said, 'I can't do anything, even if I graduate.' Others said they didn't feel like they belonged; that they didn't feel like they fit in; that they didn't feel like anybody cared."

Crovo, who'd recently moved to Lexington from South Carolina, knew little about immigration issues. But she knew she had to help the students.

So she offered them a deal: if they would study harder, she'd help them find sources of money for college.

Some of the students were reluctant at first; others said "maybe."

But slowly things began to happen. More Dunbar teachers helped. Monthly meetings were held to assist Latino students with problems. Evening sessions were organized at the Lexington Public Library's Village Branch to help Latino parents assist their children.

Jim Adams, coordinator of Dunbar's Student Technology Leadership Program, offered to establish a technology program for Latino students. The kids, however, had a different idea. They launched a club of their own, Latino Outreach Leaders.

Meanwhile, Erin Howard, Latino outreach director at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, helped the growing Dunbar effort. Students like Ortiz started attending BCTC's annual summer Latino Leadership and College Experience Camp, taking what they learned back to their classmates.

Crovo spent every spare moment reading and searching online for college information and assistance programs that did not require proof of citizenship, passing the information on to the Latino students.

When the Obama administration launched its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in August, Dunbar held a fair at which students could get details and assistance in applying for the program. DACA doesn't guarantee citizenship, but it allows undocumented youngsters to remain in the United States legally to attend school or work.

Later, when the Latino students at Dunbar came up with the idea of writing a book about their experiences, Stephen Alvarez, an assistant professor of English at the University of Kentucky, stepped up to do the editing.

"Dr. Alvarez had just arrived at UK, so all of the pieces kind of fell together," Howard said. "Some other schools in the area have clubs for international students. But the Dunbar program is really the first that focused on providing a space and a voice for Latino students to encourage each other and plan for college. It's unique because it really started from the students."

The effort is important, Howard says, because immigrant youngsters — documented or not — often struggle when they're the first generation to move into a new community.

"They're learning a new language; they're trying to understand new cultural norms," she said. "They wonder, 'Where do I fit in? Where do I belong? No one is talking to me about having high expectations for my education or myself.'"

Ortiz knows what that's like. She was brought to the United States, undocumented, when she was 3. She has no real memories of life in Mexico.

When she was a sophomore at Dunbar, Ortiz decided to tell other students in her advanced placement world history class that she was undocumented.

"It was really, really tough," she said. "But I thought that if I told people my story and made them understand what immigrants are really like, they would see things differently."

Ortiz, who has been accepted into the DACA program, recently took the big step of getting her learner's permit to drive, something she couldn't do previously because she lacked proof of citizenship. She's also considering several colleges, including UK and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She loves art.

Ortiz thinks her future looks bright, thanks in large part to the program for Latino students at Dunbar.

"I love my culture," she said, "but I definitely consider America my home."

Meanwhile, Crovo still gets a little misty-eyed remembering last month's Dunbar graduation, when she saw many of those Latino kids who were shutting down four years ago cross the stage to receive diplomas.

"These are innocent kids who are kind of caught in the middle," she said. "All they want is to get an education, go get a job and build a life like other people."

"I struggled a lot in this country ... Now this is my home. I know nothing of Mexico ... I'm Kentucky. I've been here for nearly my whole life."

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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