If the American Dream still lives, its dreamers can be found squinting in the sun and reading weather-beaten textbooks behind an old wood-frame house on Truslow Avenue in Fullerton.
Dozens of people file down the driveway each month, past the chain-link fence and the chickens it hems in, back to the rickety chairs that sit on uneven boards and dirt. They come for free lessons in English, the language of their new country. A tattered blue tarp provides the only shade for this year-old makeshift school, known as La Escuelita del Pueblo, and the headmaster is young Jimmy Ramos.
“Some call me ‘Teacher,’ ” Ramos, 22, said of his students, most of them immigrants from Mexico. “But I tell them, ‘Don’t call me Teacher. I am a student too.’ ”
Ramos does attend Fullerton College, but the faraway look in his eyes suggests that he may be referring instead to his life education. The lessons have not always been kind ones. Orphaned as a 1-year-old, the San Marcos native was packed off to his grandmother in Mexico. He returned stateside five years ago as a teen-ager seeking a college education, but he wound up homeless and hungry.
“I was scared and confused,” said Ramos, a diminutive man with a strong, steady gaze and a singsong voice. “I did not speak the language, I did not understand the people or the culture. I was on the street. And you know who finds you first on the street.”
Wandering Los Angeles, Ramos lived among gangbangers and prostitutes. The wide-eyed youngster found the only people offering him an avenue of escape were drug dealers.
“They said they wanted to teach me to sell their drugs, and when I said no they told me I was stupid,” Ramos said. “They talked of money. But I knew I wanted real things, things that matter and last. I wanted an education.”
After four years of factory work and learning English, Ramos wound up laboring in an Anaheim garage. The money was good enough to pay for schooling.
At first, the giddy new student aspired to be an attorney, but, after reflecting on his street experiences, Ramos felt he had a different calling.
“Life was changing. My life was changing a lot,” he said slowly. “I began seeing the needs of the people around me. I wanted to help them. Before, I had wanted to become a lawyer, but then I decided that I could reach out to people who needed someone by [studying to become] a social worker.”
Last summer, Ramos and some other students from Fullerton College and Cal State Fullerton found another way to reach out to people in need.
Ramos recognized the confusion he saw in the eyes of non-English speakers in his neighborhood, which sits near the Anaheim city line and a largely industrial area. Many of these people longed to learn the language that promises cultural access and acceptance, but couldn’t afford classes. Others had jobs that wouldn’t allow them time to attend weekday lessons even if they could pay.
Ramos and his fellow organizers weren’t sure what to expect when they pinned up a banner and spread the word that they would be offering free tutoring. More than 120 people lined up in the sweltering heat, and the new teachers found themselves banging on doors to find enough chairs to handle the overflow crowd.
In the months that followed, book donations and the purchase of a blackboard and some other equipment helped the organizers improve the quality of their presentations. Resources are still scarce, but Ramos hopes more people will step forward to subsidize the effort.
There have been two semesters for La Escuelita del Pueblo, and more than 160 people have passed through the program. A new session, open to the public, begins Aug. 19, and organizers are expecting an even larger crowd.
The school has also given the neighborhood an informal community center of sorts: Music and food draw people from up and down the street to fund-raisers, and Ramos’ modest yard has been the site of piano recitals, Aztec dance exhibitions and poetry readings. Ramos, a part-time disc jockey, has himself been known to share his talents with visitors. “I like the music loud,” he said sheepishly, “but the neighbors say, ‘Oh, that’s just Jimmy.’ ”
The open-air, informal feel of the school is a welcome relief to many of the students, Ramos said, because it is far less intimidating than some other school settings. Ramos said many of his pupils have been especially uneasy in the wake of Proposition 187, the initiative passed by California voters last year that seeks to deny services to illegal immigrants. Although the proposition’s tangible effects have been muted by court challenges, Ramos said immigrants, both legal and illegal, sense a growing intolerance for foreigners.
“I don’t think 187 had enough analysis before it was put out there,” said Ramos, who added that he believes illegal immigration should be curbed in other ways. “The problem [with 187] is it makes things harder on young people. The children are innocents; they have nothing to do with what their parents or the politicians do. They are here. They deserve an education, and to say no to them makes things worse for everyone.”
Ramos also said protesters of Proposition 187 who led school walkouts were equally misguided despite good intentions. Sitting in his own outdoor classroom, beside two bulletin boards crowded with photos of beaming students, Ramos said that walking away from education, even symbolically, is a form of defeat.
“Do not go in the street; that is the place for cars and traffic, not students. Protest by staying in the classroom. . . . What you have in your heart is the most important, but after that what matters is what is in your head. Information. Education. That is what matters. That is what is forever.”