Today I started my annual volunteer work at a place that I will never stop helping.
The Latino Education Advancement Program (LEAP) is housed at the Steward School, one of those blindingly beautiful independent schools here in Virigina. The program serves about fifty Latino middle and high school youth from all over the Richmond area. It’s free thanks to the dogged efforts of Program Director Melanie Rodriguez and Head Master Ken Seward, who cobble together deals with a whole range of small and large funders. (I’m grateful to James River Writers for being among them.) The result is four weeks of classes that prepare Latino kids to take more challenging classes in their own high schools, which in turn, opens doors for them when it’s time to pick colleges and beyond.
None of that is why I show up every summer.
I go because I think that Latino kids need the tools to find and tell our story. For all the ways this country has embraced JLo, Pitbull,
Vergara, and even zumba, you can’t get away from all the negative messages about Latinos in the media, images our youth soak up before they can even name their shame. Scan the newspaper and see what you find. “Illegal aliens” blamed for starting fires in Arizona. Graphic stories of drug wars in Mexico s[illing across our borders. Gang violence in DC. Drop out rates. Job stealing (whatever that means). The list goes on, ignoring, of course, the story of most Latinos in this country, which is, frankly, one of hard work and success.
So today, as I looked out at these juniors and seniors in high school, we started talking about reflection, the flat kind that anyone can see in the mirror, and the deep kind that happens behind your eyeballs. They’re about to write college essays, after all, and the stakes are high. They’ll need to grab their story now and reflect on themselves in a new way. They’ll need to have the words to say who they really are and what they dream for themselves. Owning their story and telling it in their own words will be their most powerful act so far.
“So, where do you come from?” I asked, pulling a prompt that one of my own daughters faced when applying for college. “Where do you originate?
What they had to say left me proud. Here is a list of first lines. To me, it’s a poem waiting to be written by and about them.
Where Do I Come From?
I come from a family of travelers.
I come from a speck of hope.
I come from a million places, some more obvious than others.
I come from healthy sibling rivalry.
I come from a family of courage.
I come from a home of respect, love, and culture.
I come from dreams and goals that my parents had for me from the moment I opened my eyes.
I come from Canada, the land of ice and hockey.
I come from Richmond —but not for long.