Comedian urges Hispanic students to stay in school

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

Los Angeles comedian Ernie G has a message for first-generation college-bound students in Washington.

"No matter how much education you get and how much success you achieve, if you grew up in the barrio, if you grew up in the 'hood, you will always have a little ghetto in you."

The message is not meant to discourage. It's meant to show that college and ghetto can coexist.

The self-described Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Russian, French, Catholic Jew (G stands for Gritzewsky) is the spokesman for the Washington-based Hispanic College Fund. He's also a comedian who is moving from the nightclub circuit to the high school circuit so he can encourage the country's fastest-growing group of high school students to stay in school and go to college.

One in five Hispanic teens drops out of high school, according to U.S. Education Department statistics. That's about twice the rate for black students and more than three times the rate among white students. Only 12 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 29 have a bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 31 percent of the general population, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.

For many Latino students, barriers to college include a lack of role models, poor preparation in low-performing high schools and the rising costs of higher education. "A lot of Latino students look at the sticker price and think, if my family makes $18-20,000 a year, I can't afford it," said Deborah Santiago, vice president of policy and research for Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based advocacy organization.

Financial barriers are even greater for the small portion of Hispanic students who are undocumented and ineligible for financial aid.

As the compositions of the nation's high schools change, educators have sought out Ernie G. He's a candy-coated vitamin: He makes kids laugh while they hear an important message.

On a recent Friday, he walked onstage at Wheaton High School in Montgomery County late in the day and livened up a tired crowd with his personal story. It's a tale of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, in a neighborhood dominated by street gangs that fascinated him. But he stayed away, he said, because his mother yielded a yellow Wiffle Ball bat.

"I was more afraid of my mom than I was of the cholos," or gangsters, he said.

His Mexican-born mother enrolled him in St. Francis, a private school three bus rides from his home because she was not happy with the trade schools that most black and Latino kids were attending. There were only two other Latino students there. One was "Latino light," he said. He went by "John Garsha," not Juan Garcia.

He told Wheaton students about a guidance counselor who encouraged him to go to college, and about his time at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, where he became disillusioned, started partying and stopped studying. "I went from being the first in my family to go to college to becoming another Latino statistic: a dropout," he said.

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