Breaking the Ice : Stereotypes Shatter Daily but Most Emigres Stick With Their Own

Times Staff Writer

When Hollywood High School throws a dance in the cavernous, underground gym that doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter, a crowd is usually guaranteed.

Soon after the doors were flung open on Valentine's Day night--revealing a basketball court festooned with red crepe hearts and pink and white streamers--the hardwood dance floor was pulsing with student revelers.

Another crowd was gathering in the gym's grandstands. But most of those who climbed into the upper rows were boys, afraid to descend and join in the hunt for dance partners.

It was not that they were shy. A 10th grader who called himself George Ramirez was bold enough to lead four friends down toward the dancers. But they lingered at the edge of the crowd.

"We gonna dance," he insisted in broken English, "but first we got to get ladies."

That was all he said--and that was the problem. Like most of the boys in the grandstands, the El Salvadoran immigrant and his friends were new to the United States and its language. They didn't know enough English to flirt and cut in properly.

From the first day they show up for classes at Hollywood High, foreign students are thrust into a world of social confusion. Entering a school where 40% of the 2,050-member student body has arrived within the past three years, immigrants must not only adjust to the clipped language and strange mannerisms of Americans, but also to the presence of equally stunned emigres from other nations.

"This is probably the most heterogeneous environment they've ever seen," said Steve Sloan, who heads the school's intensive English program for foreign students. "Most of them come from countries where they're just like everyone else. Suddenly, they're meeting kids from nations they've never heard of before. You can almost hear the stereotypes shattering."

Stereotypes may shatter, and the intricacies of English may eventually be mastered, but few immigrant students manage--or even want--to break through the social barriers that keep them with their own. Most come away from Hollywood High with a little more knowledge about the way others live. But only a few blend in enough to make lasting friendships.

Some immigrants have an edge in that they already know another student whom they can latch onto during the first rocky weeks. Those who come without friends often force themselves on the first person who speaks their language.

Mary Dedyan, a 16-year-old junior from Soviet Armenia, saw it happening last August on the first day of school. "You get on the public bus and there are all these scared kids who don't know anybody," she said. "The new kids come up to you and if you help them out, they keep coming back for more help. Anybody who's gone through it doesn't mind. I did the same thing when I started."

In class, the newly arrived have no choice but to interact. In the English as a Second Language program, where most immigrant students start out, classmates from around the world are forced to depend on each other. Armed with only one textbook on "American Social Encounters" but with nothing to show them how to relate to each other, they proceed awkwardly, often jolted forward by a teacher's intervention.

When Lorraine Trogman gives her class instructions in English, she rarely repeats herself. "That way, the kids who don't understand have to ask the other kids who do (understand) what I said," she said. "It's fascinating to watch them piece it together."

But outside of the classroom, the enforced spirit of cooperation withers away. During morning nutrition breaks and at lunch, student emigres stream toward the school's open-air quad, dividing along ethnic and national lines. When the sun is high, groups of Nicaraguans and Salvadoran immigrants may cluster under the branches of a ficus tree, while a neighboring jacaranda shades Korean students.

As the months pass, and students come to recognize each other in class, the groups exchange nods, then greetings. Eventually, a few friends may split off from their groups and join each other for lunch. Sometimes it happens consciously; more often it is accidental.

In the case of Deng Han, a 17-year-old Cambodian refugee, it was simply mistaken identity. Day after day, Deng's dark complexion and stringy black hair attracted the nods of Central American students who thought he was one of them. One day, David Italiano, a Salvadoran emigre, greeted Deng in Spanish. Deng could only reply to Italiano's "Como se llama?" with helpless shrugs.

Classmates in a beginning English class, Deng and Italiano were soon conversing in the little English they both knew. Since then, they have become fast friends and lunch partners. "We are all the time together at school," Deng said. "He tells me when other people are using bad words on me. One bad guy, he cursed me in Spanish. David told me what it meant and he told me the words to say back."

Next year, Deng said he intends to take Spanish so he can exchange more than curses. But attaining fluency in insults is about as far as most immigrant students will go in reaching out to other emigres. Even after they become comfortable in English, many tend to remain among friends who mirror their own experiences.

Patty Alvarado, a 17-year-old senior who came from El Salvador three years ago, used to accost American-born students on the bus to and from school, jabbering at them in a vain effort to make friends. "They didn't want to waste their time with me because I spoke too slowly and I made too many mistakes," she said.

Now she is competent enough in English to hold fluent conversations with any American. She dresses like many of her American-born counterparts, favoring fluffy pink sweaters and brightly colored jeans. Her notebooks are filled with the same doodles of broken hearts and soaring birds that can be found in any American student's books. She carries a book bag studded with pins, including one that declares her support of "Hollywood High Sheiks" sports teams and another that implores: "Hug Me! I'm a Yummy-Gummy Bear."

But she spends her lunch period with her best friend, Maria Alfaro, 18, another Salvadoran, and Veronica Balsells, 18, a Guatemalan. They share fruits and pastries and, after gossiping in Spanish, use the remaining minutes to study for a sixth-period government class.

"Most of my friends are from Salvador," she said. "I don't like to buzz all over at lunch. I like to stay with my friends."

To Jerry Massey, the school's dean of students, the friendships that stay within ethnic and national lines are signs of a harsher reality that awaits after high school ends.

"When you walk around here, this place looks like such a microcosm," he said. "All these different kids, from so many different places, working and living together. But it's pretty much on the surface. A few months after they graduate or drop out, that's when reality really hits home hard. They realize we're not one big happy family here, that the lines don't always cross."

Massey wonders whether the passing of time will dissolve the Stoners, perhaps the only group in the school whose friendship naturally crosses ethnic and national lines.

The Stoners are a constantly roving confederation of American-born, Mexican, Armenian and Central American students who claim a common bond in heavy-metal rock music, long hair, marijuana and mischief intended to sap the sanity of teachers and administrators.

When milk cartons and burritos begin disappearing from the school cafeteria faster than money comes in to pay for them, the Stoners get the blame. When Massey gets an enraged note from a substitute teacher shocked by a student's adept manipulation of English curses, a Stoner is often the culprit. When marijuana use on campus is suspected, the Stoners' lockers are searched.

"They write on the walls, they try to sneak off campus to buy lunch or smoke pot, mischievous little things like that," Massey said. "A lot of it's pretty hilarious. Some of it drives some of teachers right up the wall. In terms of seriousness, we have 30 or so hard-core Latino gang members that are a lot worse. But these guys create their share of trouble."

Yet, with all their faults, Stoners ignore racial, ethnic and national lines. Just as there is room for blond, rail-thin, Hollywood-born Quinn Manning, there is also room for Abraham Amaya, short, Salvadoran and barely able to speak English.

"Everyone gets along with everyone," said Steve Griffey, another self-proclaimed Stoner. "They're just like us, so why not? We all like heavy metal and we all like weed and we all like to party, and that's all there is."

A Stoner's enemies list would include school security guards, most teachers, most policemen, drug dealers who shortchange them on marijuana and, at the top, break dancers.

"Stoners and breakers always fight it out," said Jon Evans, a Hollywood High School sophomore. "One time I was singing 'Die With Your Boots On,' by Iron Maiden, and these four breakers started laughing at me. That was war, dude. That's why we can't stand breakers."

Massey expects that Hollywood High's Stoners may begin to drift apart even before they finish school. "Girlfriends," he said. "Sooner or later, they'll discover girls. I wouldn't be surprised if they were all split up in a year. There's one Stoner who won't put any headphones on in language class because he doesn't want to mess up his hair. It's only a matter of time for him."

Stoners, of course, insist their allegiance to "drugs, sex, partying and heavy metal," as Jon Evans put it, will last forever.

"My mother says I can live my life any way I want," Abraham Amaya said, echoing the sentiments of the most American-born of Stoners. "My sister was a Stoner. And I'm a Stoner. And that's it, dude, you know? That's just it."

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