Through the Eyes of Immigrants
Saturday, December 9, 2006
Five Fairfax County high school students, all Latino immigrants or children of immigrants, stood in a tight circle and held hands. They asked God to help them tell their stories to an audience and privately worried they would be booed.
"Give us the strength to not be so nervous and to not speak too fast," said 17-year-old Vanessa Cerro. "Let our hearts speak out, and let them understand how we feel."
"And let us take something back with ourselves," added Carlos Galicia, 16.
Yesterday, these emissaries from the Annandale High School Hispanic Leadership Club faced a crowd they feared would be intimidating -- a few hundred students from the prestigious Georgetown Day School in Northwest Washington. Students at the private school have been studying immigration, and the Annandale teenagers are living it. So they came together for a town hall meeting in Georgetown Day's bright atrium.
Georgetown Day students listened as Carlos told of how his mother was pregnant with him when his parents slipped across the U.S.-Mexico border by jumping fences and hiding in sewers. Silvina Orellana, 16, said that her father was deported to her native Argentina and that she hopes he can come back someday. Before long, the teenagers were chatting freely about stereotypes, homecoming games and college plans.
"People think you're in gangs, Mara Salvatrucha," Vanessa said. "They're vicious. You hear they chop off people's arms. But I'm just not that person. I'm more than that."
"I'm like, 'Oh my God, I just wish they could be in my body one day and walk through those doors everyday and have to face people with their comments,' " said Carlos, who dressed up in a blue button-down shirt and pink tie. "People say . . . 'Look at that Mexican' " -- or use ethnic slurs.
"I'm like . . . 'Yeah, I'm a Mexican. Yeah, I like my frijoles con huevos,' " he joked, prompting laughs all around. He also told the crowd that his parents are legal residents seeking citizenship.
Georgetown Day senior Laura Gilbert, 17, raised her hand: "Do you guys generally hang out with children of other immigrants? Are there kids at your school who are against you being there?"
"My best friends are Asian, Afghan, Arab," Vanessa replied. "It doesn't even faze us."
At Annandale High, one of Fairfax County's most diverse public high schools, about 25 percent of the 2,300 students are Hispanic, 22 percent are Asian and 35 percent are white. Nearly 40 percent are from poor families.
In some ways, Georgetown Day, where high school tuition is about $26,000 per year, presents a stark contrast. Many of Georgetown Day's students have international experience, either from living abroad or traveling, but teachers could think of no student who is a first-generation immigrant. About one-third of the students at the school, which opened in 1945 as an integrated school in the still-segregated city, are ethnic minorities; every ninth-grader takes a diversity seminar.