by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, December 2013) The Third Annual Hispanic Symposium held at Thomas Jefferson International Academy on November 6th focused on challenges young people have to overcome during their educational experience as students from a diverse background. At the evening session at Thomas Jefferson featured a three member panel Cleveland School Board Member Stephanie Morales, Esperanza Executive Director Victor Ruiz, and Minority Business Advisor Luis Cartagena. All three of the panelist attended Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools and each shared some of their experiences with overcoming obstacles to academic achievement such as adults that made assumptions about their ability to perform academically, and peer pressure to skip school. They also talked about people who made a difference in their lives or decisions they made that changed the direction of their lives.
Earlier in the day at a Youth Panel Discussion held at the Ariel International Center, a similar panel of Cleveland school alumni shared their experiences with Cleveland students participating in the Closing The Achievement Gap program. The panelist then participated in discussion with students about obstacles they face as minority students and how they plan to position themselves to keep focused on education and improving their lives.
The evening session continued that theme with parents, teachers and community members listening to the panelist describe some of their experiences in the Cleveland Schools and relate them to what minority students may be experiencing today.
Following the evening panel discussion, Moderator Juan Molina Crespo, Executive Director of the Hispanic Alliance, introduced the Keynote Speaker, Felipe Luciano, a nationally known community activist. Crespo said in his early years Luciano was in a gang at age 12, busted for 1st degree murder at age 16 and out of prison at age 18. Crespo said that Luciano, as the panelists talked about earlier, had a person in his life that made a major impact and helped him to realize “I’m smart.” He noted that Luciano went on to college, became an activist and help create the New York Chapter of the Young Lords in Spanish Harlem. Crespo said Luciano is in sinc with the thought process that developing people is fundamental to community development and an advocate of Puerto Ricans taking ownership of their roots, specifically their roots in black African culture.
Keynote Speaker Luciano immediately addressed the issue of race. He told the story of his birth when a doctor tried to label his race as white, a practice at the time for many Puerto Ricans, an attempt to obtain some of the advantages of the dominant white culture. Luciano said, “My grandmother told the doctor: ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see the boy is black?’” Luciano said his grandmother taught him to embrace and love his dark skin and his curly hair. He then addressed the many Puerto Ricans present for the talk, saying, “We are an African culture. Mambo is black.” He urged them to be politically, spiritually and racially conscious.
Luciano urged Puerto Ricans to stop looking to whites for validity. “Look at the beauty of yourself.” He talked about the roots of Puerto Rican culture, the mixing of African and Native American blood and that in 1619 when the Pilgrims arrived in North America, black people had already been speaking Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas for 111 years. He urged Puerto Ricans to embrace their African, Native American and Arab roots and not to identify with the Spaniards who were the oppressors and slave holders.
Luciano talked about the importance of male role models for young boys to measure themselves against. He said an unfortunate thing about growing up in a broken home without a father, the oldest child often becomes the adult – playing the role of husband, older brother and father. He said such an environment robs a child of his dreams and doesn’t allow a child to be a child.
Luciano shared some of his experiences organizing in New York City as a representative of the Young Lords including an incident where the group took over a church to assure there would be a breakfast program for neighborhood children. Then he challenged Puerto Ricans in Cleveland asking them “What are you willing to do to make sure your children are educated?”
Luciano urged community members to build a male society to help youth deal with gang violence and a society that promotes prejudice and racism. He urged the group to be inclusive. He said, “You need some street guys in your group to keep you honest, to keep you real.”
Luciano talked about the importance of oral and visual communication as a learning style in the Puerto Rican community. He urged the Cleveland Puerto Rican community take control of their schools and create liberation schools to teach young kids about their culture and help them feel educated and empowered.