Pursuing ‘American Dream’ produces hard realities for immigrants


As the student body majority at Johnnie Cochran Middle School has shifted
over the last 100 years—from white to Asian to African-American to Hispanic—
so too have the challenges faced by the school.
“Clean up, your mamma don’t work here.” Amidst the resounding chattering of the 11-year-olds, Cassandra’s voice found a place of her own. The chattering paused for nanoseconds and then returned to a roar. Under her breathe Cassandra Walton, a parent volunteer murmured, “If they don’t clean, I will have to clean it. I am cleaning my own children; I am not cleaning anybody else’s.” The large rectangular lunch room at Johnnie Cochran Middle School in South Los Angeles kept shrinking as students filtered in, queuing in line for free lunches. Standing a few inches away from Cassandra was Pamela Niles, a former English language teacher who now administers ESL tests.

“Keep it dry, Emily. I can almost go swimming in it,” Niles said, turning around at the soft featured and slender Emily, who was wiping the tables. “What?” shot back Emily, also caught ‘misbehaving’ today. These immigrant kids feel that this is the American way to be, Niles said, in explaining Emily’s outburst. They see a group of kids behaving like that, and they think that is the American way. If they had been in their home country, Niles added, they would have known that disrespectful responses are not allowed.

Johnnie Cochran serves mostly immigrant
kids belonging to lower income families.
Johnnie Cochran Middle School can be best described as a school of the working poor, says Principal Scott Schmerelson. The South Los Angeles School serves mostly immigrant kids, but despite all its challenges, the campus represents the great American dream for many families. But the dream comes at a cost and often entails bearing a host of dangers like violence and economic instability, or alienation from their children who spend hours alone as parents work multiple jobs. Most of the students qualify for free lunch, and Principal Schmerelson makes sure that every child eats. “The parents are dependent on the school to make sure the child gets breakfast and lunch at school. At times they are either working two or three jobs or leaving before the child goes for school,” he says. Safety is another big issue. This does not come as a surprise since the surrounding neighborhood is prone to random gunfire and other violence. Parents feel that their kids will be safe with us, Schmerelson adds.

Stressful lives for immigrant children

Pointing at two Nigerian girls from the crowd waiting for their free lunches, Niles says: “These two sisters had come to America with their father. But he passed away and now they are in foster care. Their mother is still in Nigeria and can’t come to be with them.” I also have students who are living here with their relatives or friends either because they were born here or because there parents got deported. So… wouldn’t you rather be in Mexico with mommy loving you, hugging you, or would you rather be tossed in the big city going from place to place? The parents feel that they have brought the kids here for ‘mejor vida’( better life). When you come here from other country you have to do more than one job to make ends meet. So, what happens when you are away all day from the home and when your children come home, you are not there. What kind of lifestyle is home now?” Niles asks.

Often separated from their parents,
the children of immigrants must live
with relatives or at foster homes.
If 13-year-old Miguel Zaragoza had been present at that moment, Niles would have probably cited him as an example of a challenged home life. Miguel enrolled at the school in September after being kicked out of his previous school for vandalism. A case of mistaken identity, he says. He loves math but finds it difficult to concentrate on his homework at home. If he stays back in school for extra counseling, his parents get very upset.

“I live in a bad neighborhood, so I can’t stay away from home for too long. There are a lot of gang fights and shootings that occur, I go to school and then come back fast,” says Zaragoza, mentally sketching a chilling picture of a neighborhood where he says he can never step out. He often stays within the confines of his home. His tired, sunken eyes look away towards the open blue sky as he speaks, “My dad and four brothers always have mad kind of fights, they are always yelling at each other for no reason and when I try to help them they yell at me.”

He wishes his parents would help him with homework, show love at home and just be there when he needs them. Zaragoza plans to go to high school somewhere away from this neighborhood. If there is something that still rekindles his desire is the thought of becoming a soccer player, playing on the defensive line. Talking about soccer gets him excited for few minutes, but then the fine lines of distress quickly becomes visible when he realizes that the biggest obstacle standing in between him and his dream are his bad grades. He plans to work hard on his scores and stay back for extra counseling but wonders if he will be able to negotiate the fear of his safety and that of his fuming parents.

Cleaning homes, caring for siblings

Immigrant children view education
as a gateway for a better life for
themselves and for their parents.
The story of Angela Asij, another eighth grader, sounds similar. However, the two things that have worked in her favor are her straight As and support from her teachers and parents. But she has faced her share of emotional meltdowns before. “I felt that I was being ignored and not loved by my parents. All the attention was given to my younger two sisters and I felt very neglected,” says the 13-year-old who dreams of making it to one of the magnet high schools in affluent west Los Angeles. Thankfully for Angela, her math teacher, Inna Kopelevich, serves as a much needed anchor. But now, her biggest concern isn’t being overlooked by her parents; it’s the economic crisis that is hitting close to home. Her mom is planning to take more jobs like her father, as they fear there will not be much to live on. Before the unfolding of these economic events, Angela’s mom worked as a housekeeper in two houses, a number that has now climbed to five houses. On weekends, Angela accompanies her mother and assists her in the housekeeping. She also picks up her siblings if she knows her mother will come home late, feeds them and helps them with their homework. The fact that she can help her sisters with their homework makes her happy. She remembers her years in elementary school when she struggled to follow the course work and lacked guidance and support.

“My mother is proud of me,” she says with a sense of pride, “because during summers I stay at home to look after my sisters so that my parents are not worried about where to keep them.” Attending summer school can help Angela further polish her skills in various subjects, but she knows if she does enroll in summer classes, there will be no one to look after her younger sisters.

Kevin Navarette has a ‘you mess with me, I mess with you’ kind of attitude and would like to enroll at USC someday. His classmates seem to be inspiring him, though in an unusual way to keep focus on subjects especially math. Navarette says “my classmates tease me that I will be working at McDonald’s, if I don’t get algebra, I won’t get an education or go to college.” Seeing his mother return to job hunting due to the recent economic tumult the one thing that he wants to have in the future is a ‘job’. His father who earlier worked as a chef for one of the sororities at USC now cooks in a hospital for older people. After getting a job, Navarette would like to have a house -- no apartments, he adds with a matter of factness. His parents, like those of Miguel’s and Angela’s, are working hard to make the ends meet, and this often entails spending less time with their children, which teachers say leads to depression, isolation and a feeling of unwantedness. While some are lucky to find support and guidance in the form of teachers, peers and parents, many other immigrant children fall through the cracks.

So, is this a better life, a ‘mejor vida’?

A better life for the children?

Triple segregation often impedes academic
achievement for immigrant children, forcing
them to drop out.
Anthony J. Colón, president of Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options feels that it is. He says some of these immigrants come from countries where the poverty is dire and severe, where the living conditions are horrendous, where parents sell their children into prostitution to eat. Even the worst conditions in the U.S. are an improvement to some of the conditions in the other countries. “The immigrants see their plight as better off as compared to going back to a country where there is absolutely no possibility of an opportunity at all. None,” he said.

Parents like Ebelin, concur with Colón’s statement. Ebelin separated from her husband and decided to come to US. She was just 25 when she came to the U.S. five years ago from El Salvador with her two daughters, one of whom was just a few weeks old. She hopes to take her daughters to El Salvador one day, but she worries that since her separation with her husband was not an official, he will not let her daughters come back to the US. “It was very difficult when I came here,” she says, adding that immigrating to America will give her daughter a mejor vida. She and her mother work house keeping jobs and earn just enough to live on. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), estimates that illegal immigrants represent 70 percent of all domestic workers in greater Los Angeles. Ebelin didn’t discuss her earnings, but even without legal residency, domestic workers like her are entitled to California’s minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, a pay rate immigration advocates say most probably do not get.

These days Ebelin works only two days a week and devotes rest of her time looking after her daughters, dropping them at school, picking them up, working with them on their homework and attending English classes at night. She is trying hard to speak English exclusively at home, which she admits continues to be a challenge as she finds herself lapsing in Spanish too often. “But I try,” she said. Her dream like several other immigrants is to get U.S. citizenship. Are the hardships worth it? “Absolutely,” she says. “It is better for my daughter, my family.”

Some of the parents whose children attend Johnnie Cochran Middle School are wonderful. They all want the best for their kids, and then there are others who don’t know how go about it. Pamela Niles talks about the ‘getting back in control’ program that the school runs for parents to get control of their children, some of whom have gone astray. Wendy, she says, is an example of what can happen to a child when the parents’ role diminishes. Wendy ran away from school with her boyfriend. It was the same year she turned 15. Niles had seen her turn up at school three weeks earlier this month. She was pregnant and looking for home schooling.

Katrina Castellano, a resource teacher at the school, remembers one of her former students who recently had an abortion. “The girl is obviously culturally American as opposed to her mom who is El Salvadoran. For her mother it is all about getting married and having kids,” says Castellano stressing the cultural differences between the American-born immigrant children and their parents, which often leads to the straining of the relationship between the two.

Castellano continues to guide her former student through High school and is certain that she will enroll in college too. “We really push for college at school by talking about our college experiences and painting a vivid picture of the college life,” Castellano says, acknowledging the success of this strategy as she has noticed more students interested in college and making early decisions about which college they would like to attend.

Inna Kopelevich encourages her students with the same ideology that dominated her life as an immigrant to the U.S. Reflecting on her childhood days, she says, “We grew up believing that America is the last place on earth where you are not limited by the race you were born into or the caste from which your family hails, where if you work hard you can become something…. you can make a difference.”