Monthly Archives: February 2014

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 2 – “Sandra Peralta” (excerpt #11)

Sandra sitting in her 1984 Firebird across the street from Welch Park (Peralta Family Photo)
Sandra sitting in her 1984 Firebird across the street from Welch Park
(Peralta Family Photo)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. This is the 1st excerpt from Chapter 2: “Sandra Peralta.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”


Chapter 2

Sandra Peralta

When I started working at Kinney’s again, a friend named Sammy Ybarra, who I met through a high school friend years before, asked me be his assistant coach for the eighth grade boys basketball team at his elementary school alma mater, a Catholic school in his neighborhood.  He and I became good friends, and I later served as a chaperone at his wedding.  I excitedly accepted his invitation to help coach the team.

We had a blast, and the next year, the school asked me to be the head coach for the boys’ sixth grade basketball team.  I poured all of my energy into coaching that team, and we won all of our games except the championship game at the end of the season.  The kids, parents, and school community loved me, and working with the boys gave me a glimmer of hope that I could succeed at something.

Although the carousing, drinking, and chasing women continued, I began to think that there was a way out of the mess I had created for myself, and getting back into college was the key.  Later that spring, school officials asked me to coach the eighth grade baseball team, and I took on that job with the same gusto.  During the day and on weekends, I was peddling shoes; and in the afternoon during the week I was coaching a Catholic school baseball team at Welch Park in east San Jose.

At night, I was hitting the town causing mischief and feeling a little less inadequate, but not by much. One day, while hitting ground balls at practice, I noticed a shiny car slowly rolling down Santiago Avenue, the roadway that ran between Welch Park and the row of houses across the street.  The driver of that silver 1984 Firebird turning left onto the driveway at the house right across the street from home plate would forever change my life.

Right across the street from home plate on the baseball diamond at Welch Park lived a beautiful young woman.  Every day, I would stop practice to the merriment of the thirteen and fourteen year old boys as she drove up to her house.  I would watch her gather her belongings from the car, sling her backpack over one shoulder, and sip a soda as she walked into the garage that led to the house.  Day in and day out every afternoon, like clockwork, she would turn onto the driveway in her silver Firebird and I would stop practice to watch her routine to the chuckles and giddiness of the team.

After a week or so, the mischievous boys dared me to walk across the street and ask her out on a date, so I took on their challenge the next day as she drove up in a brown Mazda similar to one owned by another young woman I knew.  This was my chance, so I casually jogged across the street pretending that she was the other girl and shouted, “hi Clarabelle.”  As I approached her in the garage of the house, I finally had the chance to see her close up.  She took my breath away.

She had smooth fair skin, high cheekbones, long flowing brown hair combed in the 1980s style of the day, big brown doe eyes, and cute lips that curled just slightly at the top.  With confident reserve, she said, “I’m not Clarabelle, my name is Sandra.”  I apologized for mistaking her for someone else and nervously introduced myself.  I shuffled my feet without taking my eyes off of her eyes, mumbled several things I don’t remember, apologized again, and started jogging back to the park.  She left me speechless, and I didn’t have the courage to ask her out, even though that’s not what I told my players.

During the next several weeks, the kids on the team kept asking if I had gone out on a date with Sandra and I told them with authority that a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.  Of course, there were no kisses and nothing to tell.  Every afternoon when she slipped out of her car, I would wave my hand to say hello in an effort to catch her attention, but I don’t remember if she ever waved back.  When the baseball season ended I had no reason to go back to Welch Park, so I kicked myself for not getting Sandra’s number and  letting an opportunity to slip through my fingers.


Next Wednesday: Fate gives me another chance to meet Sandra.

The Soundtrack for One East Side Kid’s Life

The cover from Ramon Ayala's first album, "Ya No Llores" with Los Relampagos de Norte  (Fred. O. García  Collection)
The cover from Ramon Ayala’s first album in 1963, “Ya No Llores,” with Los Relampagos de Norte
(Fred O. García Collection)

Looking back, growing up Mexican American on the east side was pretty cool.  My family was more American than Mexican.  My parents were born in the United States as were my dad’s parents and grandparents.  We spoke English at home with a sprinkling of Spanglish to add flavor, just like the tablespoons of my mom’s homemade salsa we would sprinkle on every meal whether it was tacos or fried chicken.

Like language and food, music in our house crossed borders.  My dad’s collection included the standards (Sinatra, Martin, Nat King Cole), rock and roll 45’s, and a wide variety of Mexican music.  His component stereo system which sat on the “black dresser” in our little dining room was sacred.  He meticulously catalogued his collection: Mexican albums stood side by side in the cupboards of the dresser, 45’s sat on the speakers, and cassettes he recorded filled the top dresser drawer.

I loved it all, especially Mexican music.  I can still smell the cardboard of album covers that wafted out of the cupboards as soon as the door was opened.  Mariachi, tejano, cumbia, banda, a sampling of every type of Mexican music could be found in that cupboard.  My favorite genre was, and is, the norteño style from northern Mexico that features a twelve string guitar, bass, drums, and accordion.  Ramon Ayala y Sus Bravos del Norte, the “King of the Accordion,” is the soundtrack for this east side boy’s life.

Ramon Ayala, a Grammy Award winning artist, was 18 years old when he formed Los Relampagos del Norte in 1963.  He formed the legendary Bravos de Norte eight years later.  His songs are about romantic love, heartbreak, and the struggles of everyday life.  The lyrics strike a chord across generational lines and international borders.  He’s hugely popular with third and fourth generation Mexican Americans, and it’s fascinating to see the adoration he attracts from non-Spanish speakers.

I think this popularity comes from a half-century of being ever-present in many Mexican American households.  In my family, Ramon’s music was standard fare at backyard barbecues, weddings, and family celebrations.  Hanging out with my friends as a teenager, a few Ramon Ayala tunes would always find their way onto a song list of mostly popular disco and funk music.

When Sandra and I were married, we selected Ramon’s iconic Rinconcito en el Cielo (A Little Corner of Heaven) as our first dance rather than a standard American ballad.  The upbeat ranchera style song, played by a classic four-piece band, had us whirling around the dance floor.  On my 47th birthday, just months out of the hospital after my health crisis of 2010, Sandra and my family surprised me with a norteño band playing in our backyard.  We capped the night gingerly dancing to Rinconcito.

This weekend, I crossed off an item from my bucket-list by going on a pilgrimage to Reno with about 25 friends and family to see “The King of the Accordion” in concert.  As people were filing into the grand ballroom of the Silver Legacy Hotel, it seemed like I knew everyone that walked by.  Even though I didn’t know them, the faces in the crowd brought back childhood memories as generations of families came together for the show.

When Ramon Ayala casually walked onto the stage, the sold-out crowd erupted in a roaring cheer that didn’t stop until the concert was over.  From the first note of the first song, the audience danced in the aisles and swayed arm-in-arm as they sang every word of every song releasing passionate gritos during the musical interludes. Before long, I was no longer in a Reno ballroom; I was transported into a backyard, a wedding, and a family party.  The highlight of the night was jumping into the aisles to dance with Sandra as Ramon Ayala himself played Rinconcito en el Cielo.

On the 5-hour drive home, I thought about growing up as a Mexican American on the east side and my career as a high school basketball coach, corporate executive, political chief of staff, and school board member.  I’ve had some amazing experiences in my professional life that I never dreamed could be possible.  But when it comes right down to it, the Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy had it right, “there’s no place like home.”

The Mexican American community, and the Latino community in general, is highly misunderstood in mainstream American life.  Our zest for life and our passion for culture are often mistaken for a lack of desire to achieve academically or professionally.  That’s not true.  We work hard to make a better life for our children.  By the same token, from the vibe of near nirvana at the concert, it seems to me that Latinos can teach a lesson or two about living a balanced life.

Mexican Americans place a high priority on family, relationships, love, heartbreak, and surviving life’s day-to-day challenges.  We also place a high priority on working hard to earn our keep.  It’s these seemingly contradictory notions that make us a special, yet misunderstood, people.  For a half century, Ramon Ayala, a Mexican-born musical artist, has brought the shared experiences of Mexican Americans to life.  On Saturday night, he took me on a wonderful two-hour journey back home.

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San Jose-20140219-00279

Dear Readers,

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Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #10)

(stock image)
(stock image)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. It’s the 10th excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”


Before long, I was failing tests, or worse, just not showing up to class. I was losing confidence in myself as the cycle of going through the motions at school, not showing up for exams, and partying intensified. Every morning I awoke with doom and disaster lurking around every corner questioning myself for accommodating my dad’s wishes that I go to a four-year university.

Was Mr. Bailey right after all? Were college and a life of middle-class comfort not part of my future? What was I really trying to accomplish? One night while drinking at a friend’s house, a former high schoolmate, who I’m sure, was envious of me, told everyone there that I was wasting my time going to college because I was meant to be a working stiff like everyone else from the neighborhood. Drunk and depressed, I believed every word of what he had said.

When my third semester of college came to an end, my academic career at San Jose State collapsed. The bright future that my parents, teachers, and many others had predicted for me had vanished.  San Jose State University sent a certified letter to 48 Viewmont Avenue informing me that I had been academically disqualified from the university.  I had flunked out.  There was no cocoon to protect me; in fact, I had to find a way to protect myself from the cocoon.

With my self-worth completely eroded, I drove deeper into the abyss of self-destruction.  I quit working at Kinney’s for a higher-paying job selling shoes at the mall.  Drinking and carousing around town with Rudy and the guys intensified.  I looked for a job with potential opportunities for quick advancement and found work at the J.C. Penny department store at the same mall.

I worked hard and soon caught the eye of management as someone who could succeed in the retail industry.  All the while, I still hadn’t told my parents about the college failure, I was drinking and partying several nights a week, and my relationships with women were superficial and unstable.  As my self-worth further declined, I would soon be dating someone else, usually some co-worker at the department store, to cover up the emotional sting.

I quit working at J.C. Penney despite the apparent success and a promising future there.  For a short time, I worked on side jobs with Rudy at his father’s concrete construction company as a laborer during the day, and spent nights sitting at the local bar drinking with the hardened and grizzled construction workers.  I was depressed and seeking validation through alcohol and emotionless pursuit of women.  Sisi remembered that I was never home when she told me how I was “absent from [Sisi], and mom and dad’s life.”

She recalled many nights when my dad sat at his stereo listening to music through headphones and drinking as my mom watched movies on late night television while they worriedly waited for me to come home.  I never knew about this until Sisi shared the story years later, because my parents were always safely tucked into bed by the time I staggered into the house to throw myself onto my bed for the night.  My older brothers and sisters knew nothing of this as they had their own lives, their own families, and, with the exception of Steve, lived somewhere other than San Jose.

The Spanish proverb, “the night is always darkest before the dawn,” perfectly portrays that time for me as I had reached the lowest and darkest point of my life.  I had failed in college, foolishly entered into and walked out on several relationships, threw away what J.C. Penny managers thought was a promising career, and couldn’t cut it as a construction worker.  I begged the manager at Kinney Shoes to take me back so I could earn a little money to sort out my life.

With my parents, I confirmed what they probably already knew about my college failure; it was 100 times more difficult than when I told them about the Mr. Bailey meeting.  My dad stood and listened without saying a word, then shook his head in disappointment and walked away.  My mom looked at me with sad eyes and told me that I would find my way and they would be there for me when I needed them.

I had broken almost all of the values and standards that I learned at 48 Viewmont Avenue about how to conduct an honorable and successful life.  I had lost respect for myself and for others, especially the women I used to console my broken spirit, and displayed no desire to learn and improve myself, or to be compassionate, or to love unconditionally.  I was a defeated young man, barely into my 21st year, with no idea how my future would unfold.


Next Wednesday: Fate steps in as I try to rebound from the darkest period of my life.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #9)

Tower Hall, San Jose State University (SJSU file photo)
Tower Hall, San Jose State University (SJSU file photo)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. It’s the 9th excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”


My sub-standard performance in the classroom finally caught up to me when I met with the school guidance counselor during the spring of senior year to discuss options after graduation. His name was Russell Bailey. Mr. Bailey was a portly Irish man in his late 50s with piercing blue-green eyes, thinning black hair slicked back so it looked like it was stuck to his scalp, and a large head holding thick jowls that hung from his face.

Sitting behind his desk and talking with a booming voice, he looked and sounded intimidating as he opened my file and began to lay out my options. He told me that my poor study skills, a mediocre 2.72 grade point average, and an average SAT score left me with few options other than trade school, work, or maybe, community college. I sat in front of his desk stunned, scared, and confused. Everything had always worked out for me. Assuring Mr. Bailey that my parents, friends, siblings, everyone, expected me to attend college; I quietly listened as he bluntly told me that community college was the only option then.

Later that evening at dinner sitting in the restaurant booth that wrapped around the family kitchen table, I shared the results of the meeting with Mr. Bailey with my parents. My mom looked at me with a puzzled facial expression as my dad continued eating without looking up from his plate or saying a word. I went to bed that night with a huge lump in my stomach trying to figure out how I was going to avoid my parents in the morning.

The next day at school, during the mid-morning break, I was at the table with the guys when a voice over the public address system directed me to go to the office immediately. As I nervously walked to the office, the boys at the table hooted and hollered because it looked like the school boy had finally gotten into trouble. When I arrived, the secretary motioned toward Mr. Bailey’s office where he was standing by the door waiting for me with a forced smile on those heavy jowls.

Walking into his office, I found my dad sitting in the chair I was sitting in the day before with the same beaming smile that attracted my mom so many years before. More confused and nervous than ever, because my dad never took a day off of work, I stood motionless trying to figure out what was going on. Mr. Bailey explained to me that my grade point average and SAT scores met the minimum requirements to apply for acceptance to San Jose State University, and that he would help me through the application process.

Once again, the cocoon saved me, and I was on my way to college, but with major chinks in the armor that had protected me throughout my life.  Registration day at San Jose State was overwhelming with thousands of people waiting in long lines to sign up for classes at the tables spread out on the large lawn of the main quad where the university’s iconic ivy-covered tower overlooked the entire scene. That first semester I took a full load of courses that included classes in science, math, history, English, and basketball for physical education.

Although I lived at home, at school I was on my own; no teachers reminding me of reading assignments, no homework to submit on a daily basis, and just a few mid-term and final exams. Since I loved to read, this was going to be easier than I thought, so I paid more attention to developing a social life as a college student. After classes, I would read a little bit at the library then walk over to the student center looking to meet people.

Unlike high school, however, I was having a hard time making friends. I was still seventeen years old, and SJSU was a commuter college, so the students were on average older than traditional college students, and everyone seemed busy, serious, and in a hurry to leave campus.  Fortunately, football season was in full swing, so I went back to the comfort of the cocoon and used my status as a student to secure tickets to take friends, who were either working or trying to figure out what to do next life, to Spartan Stadium to tailgate, check out the girls, and watch college football.

Soon I began to leave campus right after classes like the other commuter students, bypassing the library and student center, and heading straight home to read before I went to work at the shoe store or, on my day off, hook up with the guys to drink beer and hang out. My academic performance was predictable; I earned a “B” in history and English, an “A” in PE, and dropped the math and science classes to avoiding a failing grade.

I once again registered for a full load of five classes the next semester, adding a Spanish class to my schedule of general education courses. I didn’t consult with an academic advisor, so I was taking classes haphazardly, rather than for a declared major or specific roadmap toward graduation. I just wanted to make up for the two classes I had dropped during the first semester. Second semester was more of the same; going to class, doing a little reading and no studying, working part time, and carousing with Rudy and the guys.


Next Wednesday: Academically disqualified from San Jose State University

Educating Latino Students is a Team Effort

(Stock Photo -
(Stock Photo –

Since my tenure on the school board, I’ve been an advocate of investing in raising expectations for Latino students.  With my ongoing blog discussion about this issue, I’ve heard from many readers, especially teachers.  One educator wrote, “It all starts with the priorities in the home.”  Another commented that, “Latino parents need to know that their involvement is critical and necessary.”

A parent responded to the teacher comments by asking, “Can you educate parents on district policies for enrolling our kids and what to do?” That’s an important question.  Another teacher agreed with that parent and described how she and her colleagues invest time in families because “parents want to help their kids but they don’t have the tools to do it.”  So who’s right?

They’re all correct.  Every study about student success identifies strong parent support as an essential factor.  This component makes up one of the four legs of the stool that holds up high achievement in school.  The other three legs are high academic standards, sufficient resources, and high student expectations.  California schools are addressing standards and resources, but haven’t invested in engaging Latino parents or raising student expectations.  Why is this?

Raising academic standards and allocating sufficient resources are concepts that are easy to understand.  Test score goals and a college-prep curriculum are measurable, so policymakers just need to adjust the benchmarks to raise those standards, which is starting to happen around the state.  Governor Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula provides school districts with funding based on the demographic profile of their students, so financially underprivileged students will have more access to resources.

Increasing parent engagement and raising student expectations are harder to understand.  Immigrant Latino parents know little or nothing about our school system and American-born Latino parents are products of the very same system of low expectations that is hampering their kids.  Our school systems can’t expect parents to set academic priorities for their children if they don’t even have the means to understanding those priorities.

The misconception within education circles is that Latino parents don’t care about academic success and don’t make school a priority at home.  When I served on the school board in east San Jose, a predominately Latino community, I found the opposite to be true.  Latino parents were constantly asking me for advice about how to access district administration to share their concerns and seek counsel for their children.

Many school districts have active Latino parent groups that advocate for their students with few resources allocated by the district.  With the new funding formula, school leaders now have an opportunity to invest in parent groups that want to be more engaged with their students’ education.  For those who say ALL parent organizations, not just Latino parents, should have access to more district resources, my answer is “absolutely yes.”

Raising expectations for Latino students is a little trickier.  This is an issue I’ve discussed in past posts.  Proponents of educational equity and culturally relevant teacher development have argued with solid evidence that school systems have been historically biased along racial lines, thus creating an environment of low expectations for students of color.  In fact, educational equity experts call this the “missing link” in academic achievement.  I call it the fourth leg on the stool.

Despite recommendations from the state superintendent of schools and a Silicon Valley Education Foundation report, investing in a comprehensive program to address these real issues has been non-existent.  During the last decade of school budget-cutting, policymakers haven’t even considered addressing the fourth leg of the stool.  Local control funding provides a historic opportunity to change this.

Academic standards are rising and new school funding formulas are increasing resources.  With a growing Latino population, our education leaders can no longer accept the argument that the foundation of academic achievement can only be started “with priorities in the home,” especially when parents are asking for the tools to build that foundation.   Educators play a major role in the foundation of academic success and it must start with high student expectations.

By the same token, Latino parents can no longer relinquish the role of setting the foundation of academic success solely on the school system.  If school systems provide tools for parents and welcome them to engage in their children’s education, then Latino parents must meet their obligations and responsibilities to guide students toward a successful academic career.

Ensuring a robust economic future for California will hinge on the success of today’s Latino students, who will make up a majority of the state’s breadwinners within a generation.   We can no longer put all of the responsibility on the school system, nor can the school system merely rely on the home to achieve this.  California’s future rests on a team effort.  Schools need to provide all four legs of the stool to achieve success, and Latino parents and students need to answer the call.


Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail, or call 408-426-7698.

Summer in the Waiting Room: Chapter 1 (excerpt #8)

James Lick High School Administration Office (photo courtesy of JLHS)
James Lick High School Administration Office (photo courtesy of JLHS)

Blogger’s note: The following passage is the from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved my Life. It’s the 8th excerpt from Chapter 1: “48 Viewmont Avenue.” I will post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning.  To read previous installments, go to the Categories link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”


In class I was with the “smart” kids learning about algebra, geometry, biology, and Shakespeare; and after school I was either working part-time at Kinney Shoes or running around with Rudy and the guys.  At first, living in two different worlds worked out just fine as I figured out how to straddle the different social circles. I wanted to be like my friends: cool, carefree, and popular with the girls from the neighborhood, and I also wanted to be like the mostly white kids in my college prep classes and the jocks: intelligent, successful, and popular on campus.

I chose who I spent time with depending on the season. During the fall and winter, when I played on the basketball team, my circle of friends included football players, basketball teammates, cheerleaders, and the “in crowd.”  I would hang out during breaks and lunchtime in the school’s quad to see and be seen wearing my forest green wool and off-white leather-sleeved varsity letterman jacket that my dad could barely afford, but couldn’t wait to buy.

Most of the kids that came from my neighborhood and others like it played baseball, so the springtime would find me sitting at “the table” just outside of the quad shooting the bull with the guys.  I would spend the summer working at the shoe store, playing ball, and staying in the neighborhood.

The system seemed to work. My sister Sisi, who started high school two years after I graduated, would later say that, “you were cool,” and she was always aware of my high school success. “When I went to your games with mom and dad, everyone knew who you were, and when I started freshman year, teachers, coaches, and the juniors and seniors, were all surprised that I was your sister because I was shy and didn’t play sports,” she went on to say.

I seemed to fit in with the school leaders and upper middle-class families that lived in the hills, life in the cocoon at Viewmont Avenue was business as usual, my parents were protective as ever, and Rudy and my other friends protected me as well.  I’ll never forget the day after school during our freshman year when, while playing a game of pick-up football without pads, helmets, or adult supervision, I threw the ball in frustration at a big kid named Gus Rivas because he failed to block for me on the previous play.

It was another one of my risky decisions as Gus weighed about 250 pounds with a huge belly, thick wrists and arms, swollen-looking hands, and a mean streak.  His belly deflected the ball like the bullets jumped off of Superman’s chest as he charged and tackled me to the ground.  I was able to get one ineffective punch in before Gus grabbed me into a headlock and started pounding on my head.  Within seconds, although it felt like years, Rudy jumped on Gus, pulled him off of me, and with my other friends there, loudly encouraged me to run.

Slowly, however, cracks in the protective shell begin to develop. When I was living the high school version of the prestigious life in the quad with the in crowd, I would hear their demeaning and condescending comments about “Mexicans,” “low riders,” and “cholos” (the term used for Mexican Americans who dressed in baggy clothes like the gang culture of the day). They would tell me that I was different from the “other Mexicans” and that their comments weren’t targeted at me.

At the table, the guys would make fun of the “school boys,” the geeks who took college-prep classes, and deride the self-importance of the football, basketball, and cheerleader types. Of course, they would also tell me that I was different than the snobby “white boys” even though I was a school boy myself. I began to feel like I didn’t fit into either of the worlds I was trying to straddle, so to avoid looking like such a geek to my neighborhood friends, I did homework less frequently and didn’t walk everywhere with my books under my arm.

Fortunately, I was good at taking tests to keep my report card slightly better than average. To maintain my place with the popular quad dwellers, I focused on basketball and baseball so I could be one of the “big men on campus.” Despite this new strategy, I continued to feel inferior with both groups, although no one around me noticed the transformation. As Sisi described it, “you seemed everywhere in yearbook pictures and everyone, the kids in the neighborhood and the kids that lived in the hills, enjoyed being around you.”


Next Wednesday:

Eddie is available to speak at your next event or conference.  To learn more about speaking services click on the “Speaking Engagement” tab under the banner on this page.

To schedule Eddie for your next breakfast, luncheon, or dinner event, e-mail, or call 408-426-7698.

We Must Invest in Raising Expectations of Latino Students

(Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis)
(Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis)

Last week, I wrote about California’s Latino student population becoming the majority in the state and how education policymakers have historically struggled to educate them by focusing more on social and political solutions rather than academic rigor. The result is that most Latinos still work in low-paying service jobs.  I concluded the post by rhetorically asking, “Could it be that the mindset of our school systems is that Latinos should be working in service and support roles?”

A couple of readers, both educators, responded with well-reasoned comments.  They mentioned the lack of professional Latino role models, student apathy toward academic achievement, and the social challenges faced by today’s digital world. Self-motivated students do well one reader wrote, “it is those in the middle and below that we are fighting against cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations.”

It’s the students “in the middle and below” that have been collateral damage to policies that rely on social and political solutions. High standards, tools to achieve them, and high expectations form the foundation of Latino student success. In recent years, we’ve seen positive change in raising standards and providing resources.  One reader was on target by writing, “I believe the challenge is getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles.”

What are those “cultural, societal, and self imposed limitations” the reader mentions in his comments?  What causes them and how can school systems overcome them?

My friend Linda Ortega, a retired educator, recently posted a video on Facebook that shines a light on how cultural and societal representations of people of color impact children.  The video shows young Black kids evaluating the value of white and black dolls solely based on color.  Their answers are predictably disturbing: the white doll is good and black doll is bad.

(To see the video go to:

Cultural images of Latinos are similar, so one could argue that the resulting negative effect is the same for Latino students.  In the mainstream media, Latinos are portrayed as tattooed gangsters, illicit drug traders, domestic workers, gardeners, and Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants.  Given these images, it’s understandable that all but the most motivated students impose limitations on themselves and don’t do the hard work that’s necessary for academic success.

The cultural and societal representations of Latinos also impact the expectations of educators and school systems.  School board members, administrators, teachers, counselors, and school support staff also see the same portrayals of Latinos in the media.  Former California State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell called this phenomenon the “expectation gap.”  Despite his recommendations to address this gap, little has been done about it at the policymaking level.

So how do we as a society overcome these cultural and self-imposed academic limitations on Latino students?  First of all, we need to talk about it.  We should have what educational equity experts call a “courageous conversation” about how race impacts our school systems and students of color.  This is difficult to do in an era when people don’t want to acknowledge that race is still a barrier to achievement.  The video that Linda Ortega shared proves that we’re not even close yet.

Once we have that “courageous conversation,” school systems may better understand why many Latino students truly believe that they are limited to the roles portrayed in the media and that educators unwillingly may perpetuate that expectation.  Many Latino professionals I meet during my travels recount stories of teachers and counselors with good intentions encouraging them to seek opportunities in the trades and the service industries.

In California, the governor has changed the funding mechanism to provide schools with more dollars to better serve its students.  School boards and administrators are rushing to upgrade technology and infuse teacher development funds for the Common Core, the latest one-size-fits-all social and political solution to academic achievement woes.  Despite higher standards and increased funding, our state is headed down the same road unless we truly change what we expect from over half our students.

Education policymakers at the school district level need to invest in raising the expectations of Latino students through systematic and comprehensive educational equity and culturally relevant teacher training, as recommended by former State Superintendent O’Connell over five years ago.  This will help resolve the challenge of “getting students to believe that they are NOT limited to those [low-wage service and support] roles” described by a reader of this blog.

It could be generations before the mainstream media and society change their perceptions about the largest growing community in the United States.  That’s why our education systems are so important in effecting change and preparing the next generation of breadwinners and leaders.  Maintaining a large and permanent underclass in the nation’s biggest state doesn’t bode well for our future.

Education policymakers can take the first courageous step by investing in systematic change in their perceptions of Latino students.  Only then can Latino academic achievement begin to reach the levels necessary for our state’s future success.   I hope to hear from readers on this as I continue the conversation next week.