They Argued, They Cried, They Danced . . . and in the End, They Embraced : Time for Brotherhood

Times Staff Writer

Even as he boarded the bus, Loi Banh was having second thoughts.

The 16-year-old San Gabriel High School sophomore, a native of Vietnam, had never really talked to a Latino classmate before. Now, in the name of racial harmony, he was expected to sleep overnight in the same cabin with several of them.

"Orientals hate Mexicans, and Mexicans hate Orientals," Loi said. "This trip will change nothing."

It was the cynic in Loi that accepted the invitation of the staff at San Gabriel High to join 100 of his fellow students--a polyglot of Americans and recent immigrants from countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Korea--for the two-day conference on racism and cultural understanding last week in the foothills above Glendale.

As Loi and a group of Vietnamese friends took seats in the back of the bus, it quickly became apparent that the retreat held a different, less serious, promise for them.

They sat in a semicircle, dealt cards all around and began playing $5-a-hand poker, with $5 and $10 bills wrapped as rings around their fingers. They joked of their disdain for a fellow Vietnamese student who, they said, had adopted too quickly the ways of his new country. They called the student a "banana," a derisive term meaning someone yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

"I just make friends with my people," Loi explained to a reporter. "It's easier that way."

Over the past eight years, a predominantly white student body at San Gabriel High School has given way to an Asian and Latino majority as a steady stream of students continues to flow in from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and Central and South America.

School officials said the camping retreat was organized with the hope that cultural understanding and friendship might take root outside of campus, in an environment less burdened by peer pressure and ethnic division. The understanding then could be nurtured on campus where, in the words of Principal Jack Mount, the 100 students would form a "cornerstone of influence" on which to build a better school.

For two days, in the cold and rain, the students were shepherded from large group discussions to small group discussions, from ethnic group meetings to cabin group meetings and then to lunch or dinner. They were asked such philosophical questions as, "What kind of community do you want at San Gabriel High School?" and, "What risks are you willing to take to make your school better?"

They responded by hiding their fears in nervous laughter or finding comfort in the familiar face of one of their own. They laughed, they cried, they argued and then they danced. When it was all over, they shared gifts and embraced one another.

There were no dramatic changes; none were expected. School officials said the misunderstandings were too deep and the suspicions too ingrained for that. But there were the small, sometimes barely perceptible steps that inevitably precede racial understanding.

In the end, a few of those important steps, perhaps some of the bigger ones, were taken by Loi Banh and his friends.

Since 1975, the percentage of Asian students at San Gabriel has jumped from 4% to nearly 30% of the overall student population. Latinos now comprise 42% of the school's 3,300 students, and whites make up the remaining 28%.

The profound changes accompanying this influx, the racial backlash and a particular enmity between Asians and Latinos, were the impetus behind the retreat last Wednesday and Thursday.

"One of the things we never say is that there's not a racial problem here," Stephen Kornfeld, dean of students, said. "Tomorrow, we could have a stabbing on campus. We're not immune from anything."

Kornfeld knew enough about racial tension and teen-age anger to realize that his school was about to explode two years ago. As a graduate student and later as a continuation high school counselor, Kornfeld had worked with black and Latino gangs in Detroit and Los Angeles.

But the situation at San Gabriel High School was uniquely different, making for some unusual alliances. No longer were whites and Latinos major adversaries.They now formed an effective, if uneasy, alliance against Asians.

Kornfeld said a fight two years ago involving 30 to 40 students in the cafeteria convinced him that theschool was not prepared to deal with the backlash accompanying the influx of Asians.

"It was huge melee, and the combination of students was absolutely incredible," he said. "You had Latinos, blacks, whites and a Japanese fighting against a group of Asians. They all wanted 'those foreigners' out of here."

No one was seriously injured in the fight. But to forestall any further violence, Kornfeld met four times with each physical education class, talking to upwards of 400 students at a time. With the help of Paul Louie of the county's Commission on Human Relations, Kornfeld walked around campus identifying the various leaders of each social and ethnic group.

Out of this, Kornfeld said, the school developed a multilayered program for detecting and defusing racial tensions that included rumor control squads, group rap sessions, student newspaper articles and an International Week.

Even so, there have been several subsequent racially motivated fights, and Kornfeld acknowledges the potential for more. But he believes that the school has been successful in averting major violence.

"We have students coming to us every day saying 'I have a problem,' or 'My friends are about to get into a fight,' " Kornfeld said. "We tell them, 'I know there's a problem. I know you're hurting. What can we do to help?' "

Attempting to build on those efforts, Kornfeld five months ago approached the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a nonprofit organization seeking to promote racial and cultural understanding, with the idea for a human relations retreat.

With the help of Mei Kwan, a county mental health social worker, and May Woo, a school counselor, Kornfeld secured the support of several campus groups. One group, the Mexican-American Students Organization, gave $500 toward the $7,000 cost of the program. This included rental of Camp Max Straus, a 112-acre Jewish Big Brothers camp complete with rustic cabins and dining and meeting halls.

Kornfeld said he chose the boys and girls with an eye toward getting representatives from every ethnic and social group at San Gabriel. Students trained as peer counselors on campus helped lead many of the group discussions. Twelve language groups were represented, but the students spoke mostly in English. School counselors and a few parents were part of the group.

Kornfeld said school officials are now considering implementing a series of recommendations that grew out of the retreat. These include human relations workshops for faculty, parents and students, interracial rap sessions, overnight retreats and an adopt-a-student program in which students could spend weekends with the family of a different ethnic group.

"It's a process. We have to keep working on it," Kornfeld said. "The ideal is a campus where, if people aren't friends, they'll at least respect each other's differences."

From the outset, Kornfeld said, his major concern was getting Vietnamese students, perhaps the most insular of the campus ethnic groups, to participate in a meaningful way. Kornfeld said Loi and many other young Vietnamese carry the jaded detachment of people forced to endure great hardships.

Loi was willing to tell a reporter that he fled his homeland at the age of 10 and survived a two-week trip by rickety boat to Malaysia, overcoming shortages of food and water and frequent raids by Thai pirate ships.

But he was reluctant to share his experiences with other students. During a small group exercise designed to bring two students of different backgrounds together, Lio hesitated to talk to a Latino classmate.

"My life is my life, and his life is his life," he said.

Often, Kornfeld and other school officials said, the disdain and clannishness Vietnamese students exhibit in school does not result from arrogance but from the knowledge that language and cultural differences will always set them apart.

Behind the tough image may be a fragile teen-ager who wants to be accepted. This may explain why Loi and several of his Vietnamese friends place such emphasis on punk dress and hair styles as an emblem of their Americanism.

"Many of them have a certain degree of cynicism," said Roger Bauer, who teaches history and government at San Gabriel. "There's a great deal of restless energy alternated with moodiness. They can become very subdued, very quiet."

The remarkable diversity of the student body at San Gabriel High School became evident as soon as introductions in the small group sessions were made.

In one small group, there were two Americans, a Filipino, a Korean, an Ecuadorean, an El Salvadoran, two Mexicans and two students from Vietnam, one of whom was of Chinese descent. The discussion was lead by Myron Cuthbertson, a black staff member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Judas Duarte, one of the two Mexicans, was born in Sonora to a family of seven children. The 16-year-old junior came to the United States with his mother and one sister two years ago. He said his hero is Pancho Villa and that he intends to make the United States his permanent home. He did not mince words when asked the reasons behind the racial tension at school.

"The Latino is jealous about Chinese people," explained Duarte, who spoke in soft, thoughtful tones. "They have a lot of things Latinos don't have."

Later, when a Latino and a white student argued over a perceived slight, Duarte stood up and admonished the group. "We are from the same material. We are humans," he told his classmates. "The only difference is that we have different skin and different languages."

Leonel Dubon, 16, told the group that he was born in El Salvador and came to the United States three years ago to join his father, who had arrived several years earlier. He said he dreamed of one day becoming an engineer and being reunited with his mother and little sister, who remain in El Salvador.

Reggie Sunga, 15, said he was born in the Philippines but remembers little of his homeland. He said he left when he was a baby and could not understand the joy with which his parents greeted the recent news of the departure of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Nguyen Nguyen, a 17-year-old junior, didn't know the other Vietnamese student in the group. Nguyen, the "banana" Loi Banh and his friends referred to, left Saigon with his family in 1979 for political reasons. The youngest of six children, he has an A-plus grade-point average. He said his hero is Thomas Edison because the great inventor was a "workaholic." Nguyen wants to attend Caltech and study engineering.

He said he has assimilated more rapidly than other Vietnamese students because he attended an all-white school in San Diego for four years before moving to San Gabriel.

"I am also Vietnamese but they don't talk to me in school," he said in an interview. "I'm kind of alienated from them. They think of me as another white. A couple of times I went to Vietnamese parties and they called me a 'banana.' "

"My family has opened up and accepted the American way of life. We understand it. I think a lot of Vietnamese are reluctant to do that."

It was after the small group session, when the students gathered again in the large meeting hall, that several of the Vietnamese boys became disruptive and began mocking other students.

Kornfeld decided it was time to send a few of the boys home. Loi Banh was not among them.

Kornfeld took three of the students aside and told them he was driving them back to school. A few minutes later, one of the students bolted out of camp, his sleeping bag tucked under his arm. He was stopped a few blocks away by a Glendale police officer.

"Tears were coming out of his eyes from the anger, embarrassment and frustration," said Kornfeld, who arrived on the scene shortly after the police officer. "We talked for about 15 minutes. I decided to give them all another chance."

"I was hoping the Vietnamese boys would come around. I've really been working with them. I like them a whole lot. But they're struggling. . . . They're trying to work through so much."

After dinner, the students were told to imagine themselves as members of the ethnic group they most disliked. They then were asked a series of questions. The answers were used by counselors to reveal how stereotypes were part truth and part lies.

Those who visualized themselves as Latinos said their fathers had beer bellies and spent their time stealing cattle, consuming drugs and hanging around in the neighborhood. Those who imagined themselves as Asians said their values were hard work, responsibility and a need to succeed in life.

Then the first day ended with a dance, a lesson in improvisation. The peer counselors had forgotten to bring music so several punk rock tapes belonging to some of the Vietnamese boys were used.

The lights in the big hall were turned off. Students stood on chairs on all sides of the room and waved flashlights in a feeble attempt to produce a light show. Asian boys danced with white girls; Latino boys danced with Asian girls.

"I think it was the dance that finally broke the ice," Kornfeld said. "Before that, I was worried that these kids might never come together."

A few minutes after the lights went out in Cabin 10, Gloria Contreras thought she heard a noise outside. "I want everyone to sleep with me," the frightened 16-year-old sophomore announced to her eight roommates.

In a matter of seconds, five beds and several sleeping bags had been pushed together, and the girls began piling in side by side. When a few of the Asian girls seemed embarrassed to join in, Adrianna Gutierrez pulled them closer.

"We had so much fun," Gutierrez said. "We talked until 3 in the morning. We talked about the problems we had, and what we thought about each other.

"Then we raised our hands and made a pact to be friends," she said. "We promised that when we see each other at school, we're going to ask, 'How are you? How is your family?' "

Contreras said she shared with her new friends her deepest thoughts about problems with her parents. She said she found that self-disclosure could bridge any gap, including language and culture.

"I really had a great time," Contreras told the group afterward. "I really think all of you guys are great."

When Enriquetta Gutierrez got up to speak at lunch the next day, a collective moan could be heard from the students: Who is this large lady with the two teeth missing from her smile? Why does she always seem to be writing something down in her composition notebook?

Gutierrez, the mother of 18-year-old Adrianna, had a story to share with the students. She began reading in Spanish from her notebook, pausing periodically for an National Conference of Christians and Jews staff member to translate her words to English.

She told the students that the great California condor was in the last stages before extinction. Consider the allegory of one condor egg and two birds fighting over who would care for it, she said. The egg sits in a nest overlooking a precipice. The birds fight and fight to determine who will roost over the egg. Finally, both watch helplessly as the egg drops to the hard canyon below.

"The egg is idealism," Gutierrez said. "And a fight over idealism will eventually destroy idealism."

When she finished, Gutierrez began crying. Then she beckoned her friend, Lola Kim. There, in the middle of the room, two robust mothers--a Latino unable to speak English and a Chinese who knows no Spanish--hugged and sobbed and rejoiced in their day-old friendship.

"That was a very powerful statement to the kids," Kornfeld said later. "Parents so often affirm the prejudices of their children. If we would have orchestrated that scene, it never would have come off."

It was 3 p.m. Thursday and the students gathered in the large hall for a final meeting. They sat in a huge circle and listened as Jimmy Benevides and Melinda Garcia of the Christians and Jews conference described the final exercise. They told the students to think of gifts they would like to share with one of their classmates but said the gifts had to be personal, not material.

For 10 minutes, gifts of friendship and understanding were passed between friends of the same race or between teachers and a particular student who had contributed a great deal to the retreat.

Then it was Jimmy Urya's turn. The 15-year-old sophomore asked Tai Lam, a 17-year-old Vietnamese classmate, to stand.

"I want to give my friendship to Tai," Urya said. "That's one funny guy. He made me laugh all night. That's a good guy."

Tai walked over and hugged Urya and then returned the favor, giving a gift of friendship to Irma Solorzano, a 16-year-old Latino.

Several students in the room began to cry.

It went that way for a while, Latino to Asian, Asian to Latino. Then Mei Kwan, who heads the Asian rap group sessions on campus, asked that Loi Banh stand. She said she wanted to thank Loi for putting aside his initial fears and skepticism and contributing so much to the group.

Loi rose sheepishly, collected his thoughts for what must have seemed an eternity and then spoke softly.

"I want to thank you," he said. "I want to thank May Woo, my counselor at school, for inviting me here. Maybe Vietnamese and Mexicans can be friends."

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