It’s been an awful few days.
The presidential election and its result have thrown me for a loop. Even though I believe that Hillary Clinton should be president, it’s not her loss that has left me with a queasy stomach. It’s Donald Trump’s victory that has me wandering aimlessly around the house.
Forget that he knows more about ISIS than the generals. Forget that he’ll bring back factory jobs so fast that our heads will spin. What’s most galling is how he demeans people I hold dear: the women in my life, my Mexican brothers and sisters, the Pope. The Pope for Christ’s sake (pun intended)!
For the first 48 hours after the election, its impact on one group of people weighed heavily on my mind and my heart: the high school students I work with on the east side. Nearly all of them are Latino. Most are children of immigrants, some have parents who are undocumented. They are campus leaders who serve on student council and other leadership groups.
Despite the ugly rhetoric coming from our president-elect during the campaign, neither they, nor their families, represent the “worst” of Mexico and other Latin American countries. All of them, yes I said all of them, plan to go to college. They want to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, law enforcement officials, and more.
They are Americans in the truest sense of the word. Unlike many of the American voters that whisked Trump into office, when the world economy changed, the students’ families didn’t stay home complaining that the new economy didn’t work for them. Their parents took risks by leaving their rural homes looking for opportunity wherever they could find it, understanding that education is the key to a better future.
For sixteen months, my students would ask me what I thought about the presidential elections. Could Donald Trump win? Would he really deport 11 million people and break up families? For sixteen months, I told them that America values immigrants, America was the land of opportunity, and that America would never turn its back on the promise to value all its people. Voters are smart, I assured them.
I was wrong.
On Wednesday morning, my heart was heavy. I was someone they trusted, someone who understood how the system works. I felt like I let them down. I don’t have classes on Wednesdays, so I kept in touch with school administrators to see how the students were doing. It was an emotional day for the students, parents, teachers, and administrators. During a “townhall” meeting, students shared their worries and concerns.
Then they responded to the challenges that lay ahead.
The leadership students had work to do, so they got through the difficult day on Wednesday and went right back to work planning a campus Club Fair at one school and a rally at another. When I arrived at Luis Valdez Leadership Academy, my students immediately set up tables for the Club Fair. The campus quickly transformed from the worry of Wednesday to the excitement of starting clubs on Thursday.
The scene was from a school campus in “anywhere USA,” albeit with a distinctive Latino vibe. Lines of students waited to sign up for the Wilderness Club, the Tech Club, the Music Club – thirteen clubs in all. In front of the table for the Bailando Studio Club, students cheerfully danced to the thumping mix of Mexican, Latin, and Hip Hop tunes. At the Make-up Club table, student leaders were doing makeovers on the spot.
At Roberto Cruz Leadership Academy, the rally was billed as a “walkout” to protest the election result. The only difference is that the students didn’t really walk out as they planned the event for after school. They value education too much. And it wasn’t really a protest. They students marched on the sidewalk of a busy east side street carrying signs and waving to the honking cars passing by. At the rally, students rose to talk about hope, perseverance, and education in two languages.
I was exhausted as I drove home. The pit in my stomach had given way to the hope in my heart. My students taught me a lesson in leadership by practicing a lesson I taught them, “don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead.” I try to live by the quote coined by political commentator Chris Matthews. In my moment of despair, watching my students bounce back from an awful day was inspiring. They reminded me that we are a resilient community. When a barrier blocks our path, we will find another way to forge ahead.
All was not lost on Tuesday night.
Nevada voters, led by large Latino populations in Las Vegas and Reno, elected the first Latina United States senator in our nation’s history. Intolerant state leaders in Texas, Arizona, and Nevada are slowly beginning to lose their tight grip on power as Latino voters made their voices heard throughout the West and Southwest.
The racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, criminally indicted in Arizona for illegally profiling Latinos, was booted out of office after winning six straight elections. The number of Latino city council members in San Jose doubled with the election of a Latina and Latino in non-Latino majority districts.
The country is in transition yet again. That’s the beauty of our system. Almost half the country wants to change back to the way we were. The other half wants to keep moving forward. We can be angry and dwell on the potential evils of the upcoming Trump Administration, or we can learn from some smart, resilient, and very American students from East San Jose.
They’ve taught us that there’s no value in getting mad or getting even. It’s all about getting ahead. I’m following their lead.
Come join us!