By Cynthia Carmina Gomez
“You know what this means, right?” The oldest kid sat with his arms crossed on the edge of the bed.
“What?” said the other boy.
The third kid sat quietly.
“It means we won’t have enough food to eat. There will be less food.” The oldest uncrossed his arms and got up, leaving the other two behind.
It was early afternoon. The boys, just back from school, were transitioning into their evening routine. Andrea and I were in the adjoining room, getting the space ready for after-school tutoring. We stopped for a moment to listen. The doorway at the base of the stairs had no door so we would often hear the young men’s conversations. We were used to it. Adjudicated kids have little privacy. Andrea and I pretended not to listen and went back to setting up the rickety plastic tables and chairs, making more noise than usual.
Andrea and I were slowly converting a room into a little school. We called it La Escuelita. Its location, in the basement of the Latino-centric foster care home, was next to their sleeping quarters; a large square room with five tidy beds, a few dressers, and one window. It was military-style neat with few personal effects.
La Escuelita, to the left, was less furnished. Its cement floors were clean and painted beige. The rooms always a little damp and only sometimes warm. When they had time, the men who ran the center would turn on the space heater in anticipation of our arrival. If they forgot, it would not warm up until it was time for us to leave.
We had acquired a bookcase which held a small collection of Chicano/Latino literature, a few reference texts, and various outdated textbooks. There were no computers. A small amount of daylight came in through a little window above the dry erase board leaning on the wall, not yet mounted. The outline of a mural-in-progress covered one wall. Behind this wall was a hallway to a bathroom with a broken toilet behind one door and two more locked doors. In one of these, Andrea and I stored school supplies.
While only some of the residents in the home were on our caseload, we would try to sit with everyone who needed help. Too many youth and not enough time. The work was slow and difficult. Math made their eyes glaze over. Rarely did they know their timetables or basic order of operations. Most were English Language Learners and struggled with reading and comprehension. School work, in general, made backs slump and slowly pulled foreheads down toward the floor.
The surfaces of the cheap plastic tables were coarse and our thin paper would easily be punctured by the cheap pencil lead. Of all things, this grated on my nerves the most. A smooth writing surface represented to me a basic student right. To avoid bumpy illegible writing, Andrea and I would make them write on their folders.
We facilitated Latino cultural identity and heritage workshops after tutoring and it was during these lessons our young students were more likely to sit up, listen, ask questions. We would teach them about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and Dolores Huerta. We studied identity politics, internalized racism, and institutional oppression.
We watched the film Walk Out and learned about brown student activism. We started a summer camp called Summer Academia, during the months school was not in session. Sometimes, during our school site visits, Andrea and I were able to convince staff to award social studies credit for these lessons. These youth, rarely enrolled in school long enough, often did not receive the credit hours they earned.
It was time for us to go. As we cleared the room and collected our things, one of the staff came down with a mattress and prepared a bed in the middle of the bedroom.
“Just like I said,” the oldest spat.
Done with folding the chairs and tables, we went upstairs where dinner was being prepared. Andrea and I were reporting on our progress and making small talk when the doorbell rang.
There, standing on the front porch, was a probation officer with a young man. I scanned the room and noted, next to the dining table, a plastic card table set up with an extra place setting. The home would have one more mouth to feed.
The oldest youth pointed toward the new kid with his chin and asked, “Have you eaten dinner yet?”
During my time as an Educational Advocate, more children were deported, incarcerated, or killed in gang violence than graduated from high school. I know of only one who made it to college. The vicarious trauma overwhelmed any fleeting success we occasionally experienced. Depressing, yet we were determined to see our programs continue. It took all of our effort to keep the space functioning, but eventually the home closed and so did La Escuelita. Today, Summer Academia is a part of the Portland nonprofit Latino Network and thriving.
Photographs: McNary Photography
Cynthia Carmina Gomez serves as executive director of the Cultural Resource Centers at Portland State University. Before this, she worked over 10 years for the Portland nonprofit Latino Network. Over a year ago, she discovered there was interest in her creative writing. She took a few classes and was overcome by the craft. She found herself applying and being admitted to the MFA Creative Nonfiction program at PSU. She starts her studies this September.
Editor’s note: In 2011, I was still employed at The Oregonian and reporting on a range of issues involving diversity and Portland’s changing demographics. I did a story about the nonprofit Latino Network and met Cynthia at that time. When I became an adjunct teacher at Portland State last fall, I was delighted to cross paths again with Cynthia and even more delighted to invite her to join VOA 7.0.
Read my 2011 story about Latino Network: Growing leaders for Oregon’s booming Latino population
Read my Q&A with Cynthia: Six questions about civic leadership for the Latino Network’s Cynthia Gomez
Tomorrow: Tim Akimoff, Three Hours in Utqiaġvik