A stronger vision for our schools

Last Friday night I attended the first awards ceremony for the Social Justice Humanitas Academy, one of four teacher-run academies at the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies in an industrial section of the Northeast San Fernando Valley. This was the first year the high school opened, in a new multi-million dollar school building as a result of community activists and their representatives in the state’s legislature obtaining $650 million for new schools in some of the poorest sections of the Los Angeles Unified School District. My youngest son Luis is a senior at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy. He was one of several students honored that evening for having a high grade point average. I’m so proud of him. My son came at the right time to the Social Justice Humanitas Academy when it was still part of Sylmar High School. He was in his sophomore year and left the highly touted L.A. County High School for the Arts. For various reasons, he was not happy at LACSHA, although he did well in his studies. We talked to one of the Humanitas teachers, Mauricio Regalado, who recommended we bring Luis back to his home school—he emphasized that many good changes were beginning to happen. We met other great teachers, including Jose Navarro, who is now principal of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy. Trini and I, as Luis’ parents, became involved in struggling for Humanitas to be one of the four autonomous schools chosen by the community to be in the new building. We also took part late last year in the renaming of the school. It was officially called Valley Region #5 High School. Some locals called it Swap Meet High, since it was located right behind the largest biweekly swap meet in the Valley. After several meetings, community gatherings, and school sessions (and a vote by parents and students), Trini and I with other community leaders fought to have the school renamed “The Cesar Chavez Learning Academies.” Trini’s former high school teacher, Alex Reza, a teacher of many Valley leaders, was key to this fight. We’re very proud of what the community has obtained through long struggle. Recently, members of the mostly Mexican Little Village barrio of Chicago also fought for a new high school, including with an internationally covered 19-day hunger strike in May of 2001. This battle was also led by youth I helped mentor in Youth Struggling for Survival. That high school opened its doors in the fall of 2005 and now has four autonomous small schools—including one for Social Justice—under the shared structure of Little Village Lawndale High School. Although the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies in the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of L.A. was a result of ideas and actions by teachers, students, parents, and community leaders before we returned to live here—and those politicians aligned to our community needs, including school board member Nury Martinez—I was proud that Trini and I, as well as my son Luis, played an important role in its establishment. In addition, this past Monday Trini and I were present at the renaming of another new school in the Van Nuys barrio of the Valley. It was called Valley Regional #6 Elementary School until community members requested it be named the Andres and Maria Cardenas Elementary School. Andres and Maria Cardenas were Trini’s parents. They are known in the Northeast San Fernando Valley for having raised eleven children in one of the roughest neighborhoods in L.A., Pacoima—and yet none of the children got into gangs, drugs or jails. Many of Trini’s siblings are college graduates and include engineers, health care professionals, teachers, and in construction. Her youngest brother, Tony Cardenas, is an L.A. City Councilman, and a former state assemblyman, who is now running for U.S. Congress. It was another proud moment to see many of Trini’s large family—including nephews and nieces, and even a couple of grandnephews and grandnieces. Andres and Maria Cardenas had close to sixty grandchildren—and, again, all of them are doing well. One granddaughter, Angelica Loa Perez, is a singer, musicologist, and is co-founder of the nonprofit Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural. She spoke during the ceremony along with other family members. Also Trini’s brother Tony, when he was in the state legislature, was instrumental in obtaining the millions for the new L.A.-area schools. The nonprofit he helped create with other family members--the Andres & Maria Cardenas Family Foundation--has given more than a million dollars in scholarships to Northeast San Fernando Valley students over sixteen years. Tony did a talk to the well-attended gathering in front of the elementary school, saying that honoring his parents is to honor all hard-working value-driven immigrants to this land, in particular those from Mexico and Central America who make up the majority of the Northeast San Fernando Valley. I’m proud to be married into this marvelous family. All the family members present were allowed to pull the ropes to unveil the new school name, applauded by all, including students and teachers of the new school. Education to me is key to the development, continued growth, and meaningful future of Mexicans and Central Americans, all Americans really. That’s why we need to make sure all public schools are given the adequate funds, tools, teachers, and buildings to bring the best to our children. But this can’t be done removed from the vibrant history, contributions, names, voices, and stories of the people involved. This can't be done without an organized fight, new strategies, community leadership. That’s why the battle in Tucson, Arizona is key—there Chicano Studies has been outlawed and around 50 books banned from being taught in those classes. We must make sure we don’t lose Tucson schools to those who want to narrow our minds, close off access, and make second and third class citizens of our children. Naming the new schools in the Valley for leaders like Cesar Chavez, or for the unsung mothers and fathers who raised us against great odds, like Andres and Maria Cardenas, makes sense. And having a social justice vision—for greater knowledge, deeper roots, and more encompassing schooling in anticipation of a new world—is the way to go. Thanks to everyone who played a big role in making a reality the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies and the Andres & Maria Cardenas Elementary School. c/s

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