Asian, Latino Students Talk Out Tensions : 'Project Harmony' Helps Break Through Barrier of Suspicion at High School

Times Staff Writer

Maybe it was really good will and the spirit of understanding that got the 90 teen-agers together, hugging each other and clasping hands as if they were at a big family reunion.

But most of the racially diverse group of Mark Keppel High School students who participated recently in Project Harmony, which its organizers called a "human relations workshop," will tell you that it took a cranky confrontation and some ugly talk about racial stereotypes to bring them all together.

"The turning point?" said one ebullient young Latino, getting ready to return to his home in Monterey Park after an emotional two days at a camp in the La Crescenta foothills. "It was when Terrance and Ruddy got into it."

By then, that was all water under the bridge, of course. The confrontation between Terrance Cheung and Ruddy Avila had occurred ages ago, it seemed, long before the group had collectively vowed to promote a "non-discriminatory, friendly, understanding, respectful, trusting, open, caring, unifying community" at their Alhambra school.

But that brief face-off, with the American-born Chinese youth criticizing "catcalling" Latinos for harassing Asian girls and the Mexican-American accusing the Chinese youth of "disrespect," had reeked of the mistrust that, officials say, has permeated the Alhambra school in recent years like swamp gas.

It also began the process of clearing the air.

Group mistrust at Keppel in recent years has been played out against a background of rapid social change, say officials of the Alhambra School District and the National Conference of Christians and Jews, which co-sponsored the workshop.

What had been a predominantly Latino school five years ago is quickly turning into an Asian enclave. Monterey Park, where most of Keppel's students live, has become the destination for thousands of Asian immigrants. The city, whose population was 14% Asian in 1970, has evolved into the nation's first suburban Chinatown, with a population just over 50% Asian.

The changes are apparent at Keppel. Of its 2,667 students, 60% are Asian, most of them foreign-born, and 38% Latino. Community resentment has spilled over into the school.

"They hear it from their parents and bring it to school," said Mary Lou Perez, Keppel's community coordinator. "There's a lot of anger."

Mostly, the influx of new groups has produced a stubborn cliquishness among the students, says Maria Luisa Barajas, a school librarian who served as co-chairman of Project Harmony.

"There's been a splintering of the campus," she said. Extracurricular activities have been divided up among racial groups: Latinos dominate the football team, and American-born Chinese control student government. Tight little subgroups cluster warily in the lunchroom.

"It's not a good, wholesome learning situation if people look at each other through their prejudices," said Barajas, one of 20 adults from the school who participated in the workshop.

The National Conference of Christians and Jews, a human relations orgaization that has attacked prejudice for 60 years, began working in the school a year ago. It trained student leaders, got adults involved and devised an experimental two-day program to foster understanding--an odd mixture of pep rally, revival meeting, Esalen-style sensitivity training, rap session and songfest.

The students arrived at rustic Max Straus Camp, tumbling out of a pair of buses, unloading sleeping bags and overnight kits, loudly invading the Jewish Big Brother camp like a group of light-hearted summer campers.

Despite the boisterous arrival, though, they were soon engaged in serious business. The students, housed in cabins in small, racially mixed groups, participated in a general meeting where they sang songs such as "Lean on Me" and engaged in spirited "ice-breakers" with a succession of students leading cheers.

There was resistance from the start. Terrance Cheung, plucked from the crowd by one of the adult leaders during the pep rally part of the program, stood on the stage, punched the air and thrust his pelvis provocatively in leading a cheer. Some Latino youngsters turned away, raising their eyebrows.

Others talked morosely about the deteriorating state of affairs at the school. "There's a whole lot of lack of respect," said Ralph Gonzalez. "Last year, an Oriental guy came up behind me in the bathroom and stuck a knife against my back. 'I don't like the clothes you wear,' he said."

In smaller meetings, students reviewed the events of the day. Peter Cha looked suspiciously at his cabin mates and confessed: "I'm not sure I did the right thing by coming here."

And Cambodian-born Johnny Taing said: "The reason I came here was to get away from my parents, to get some peace and freedom."

The next day, in "racially separate" meetings, students talked about racial stereotypes and rivalries within groups.

The fragmentation process that separates Latinos from Asians is dividing the larger groups into subgroups, said Barajas. "There's one group of Asians that considers itself dominant over another," she said. "There are a lot of Central Americans who feel differences toward the Mexicans."

The Asians are particularly fragmented, added Mei Kwan, a county mental health worker who shared the leadership of the program with Barajas. "There are diverse languages--Chinese from Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan. They don't communicate with the Vietnamese, the Cambodians or the Filipinos. There are generational differences, with recent immigrants on the one hand and fourth-generation people on the other."

As an example of the corrosive effects of racial stereotyping, Kwan cited a misperception that Chinese people are "cheap," which surfaces in the Asian group itself.

"People see Chinese people bargaining," she said. "Even if it's a matter of 5 cents, they still try to bargain, and it's looked at as cheap. But that's part of the culture. If you think about it, you say, 'Hey, it's kind of fun.' Bargaining is a way of interacting. But it's painful to see the way it's looked at here."

At another general meeting, the 90 students were asked to take part in a "race-reversal fantasy."

"Think of the racial group you are least comfortable with at school," said Tommy Ford, one of a dozen adult "facilitators" brought in by the Jewish-Christian organization, as the students closed their eyes. "Create a mental picture of that group. . . . You have now become a part of that group."

The students were asked to write down some perceptions about their ethnic opposites--what would make a member of that group proud or embarrassed, what is appealing or unappealing about their physical appearance--and to drop their notes into a box.

A few hours later, the students returned to the meeting hall to see the results of the experiment--lists of descriptions hand-lettered on large sheets of paper and plastered across the walls. They walked silently in single file past the lists, like mourners at a funeral.

Some entries were scurrilous or insulting: "What would make a Latino most proud? To win a rumble." "What would make an Asian most embarrassed? Being called a wanna-be (a striver who wants to be better)."

Some students admitted to being angry or upset. The adults urged them to probe their feelings more deeply.

Then Cheung got up and spoke of his deep misgivings about Latinos. He acknowledged that he had contributed to the lists this description of Latino activity: "Cruising and checking out girls."

"Sometimes I'll be walking down the street with my sister, and one of these guys comes by in a disco truck," said Cheung, an articulate youth with a single gold earring. "Then you hear, 'Let me have something of what you've got,' blasting out at my sister. She's always being checked out by Latino men."

Cheung also said he feared physical confrontations with Latinos.

"Why?" demanded a Latino youth.

"Just some silly thing," replied Cheung. "This person gets his friend and that person gets his friend, and next thing, you have a racial fight."

Kiki Landeros, a slim, hollow-cheeked Latino student, reassured him. "Most Latino males have to have a very personal reason to go beat up on somebody." he said. "To just go up and hit somebody? Uh-uh. We love to make friends. We don't like having enemies."

Landeros accused Asians of being stand-offish. "I live right next door to him," he said, pointing at an Asian youth, "but we never speak."

Grace Huang replied: "Latinos are stand-offish too. They have to stick to their own race."

But Cheung's diatribe had touched off a sympathetic vibration in some students.

Korean-born Lopsie Chan haltingly told about encounters with "aggressive" Latino males when she lived in Los Angeles. "I was almost raped--twice," she said, stifling sobs. "I could understand it if it was once. But twice."

Some Latino boys, though regretful about what Chan had suffered, resented the suggestion that they were inherently rowdy. "It makes me kind of mad," one said. "Some people think all Latinos are like that."

It's not just Latinos who do provocative things, several insisted.

Then Ruddy Avila stood up and confronted Cheung.

"How about when Terrance was doing those pelvic bumps last night?" said Avila, who has the trim, muscular physique of a young gladiator. "I don't think some of the Latina girls liked it. In a certain way, it was like catcalling."

The stunned Cheung heard other Latinos say that his performance had been "disgusting," "offensive" and "disrespectful." Asians defended him as a "nice guy" who had been provoked.

It was a stand-off. The students, their feelings raw, adjourned to smaller meetings.

By dinner time, the healing process was in full swing. Many were taking painful steps to reach across ethnic barriers.

"It's taken real courage to do what you've done so far," said Glen Poling, planning director for the conference.

The progress was apparent in the cabin meetings. The nine boys bunking together in one group--three Mexican-Americans, two Chinese-Americans and four Southeast Asians--had started the two days warily, clustering by ethnic background. Now they joked together, laughing even at some of the racial stereotypes that had surfaced.

Johnny Taing sarcastically repeated a list entry that described Asians as "eating fish and onions." "That's funny," he said.

They talked about the race reversal experiment. "I had never thought about myself as an Oriental," said Rick Felix. "I thought about what it must be like to come to a new country, where the language is different and the life style is different."

Nobody was certain what lasting effects would come from the two days. A similar conference last year involving San Gabriel High School students had few long-term results, said Poling, because there was no clearly defined action plan.

The Keppel students hammered out an action plan, vowing to:

Set up a "big brother/big sister" program to reduce culture shock for new students.

Work for an Asian "lunar new year dance" to balance Cinco de Mayo social activities among Latino students.

Establish a community relations committee and create a "Club Harmony" to promote intergroup activities.

Some students worried about the impermanence of the warm cloud of emotion on which they seemed to be floating as the buses revved their motors to take them home.

"Once we're back in the real world," said Grace Huang, "people can become discouraged by the pressures. Right now, it seems that a lot of people want to build an architectural masterpiece with no real foundation. They could be really crushed if it doesn't work out."

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