During lunch, there is a line at Montebello High School that students on either side rarely cross. Part gravel, part grass, it runs between a row of bungalows and buildings, lopping off the short end of the L-shaped quad.
They call this the border.
It separates rock music from ranchero. Cheerleaders from folklorico dancers. English from Spanish.
To outsiders, students at Montebello High are mostly the same: 93% Latino, 70% low-income. But the 2,974 Latino students on campus know otherwise. As at many schools in California, students here are delicately split -- in classes, sports and clubs, at social events and at lunch -- between those who seem more Americanized and those who feel more connected to their Latino immigrant roots.
Students call one side of the campus “TJ,” as in the Mexican city of Tijuana. During lunch and break periods, students who hang out in TJ gossip, chat and flirt mostly in Spanish. From homes where Spanish is the primary language, many are still learning English. Besides soccer, folklorico and the Spanish club, few students in TJ are involved in extracurricular activities on campus.
On the other side of the border, in an area with a brightly painted quad and a new cafeteria, is Senior Park. This is where students immersed in traditional American high school culture hang out. They include football and basketball players, student government leaders and members of the water polo and drill teams. Many students here come from Mexican American families that have been in California for several generations. English is the predominant language. Some don’t know Spanish.
The groups don’t hate each other. Some cross between the two sides and have friends on both. But some talk bitterly about a divide. Others acknowledge it as inevitable, even if they wish it weren’t.
“It’s like two countries,” said senior Lucia Rios, 17, a Mexican American with blond-highlighted hair who wants everyone on campus to mix more. Rios is co-captain of the drill team and eats lunch in the Senior Park area. She is proud of her Mexican heritage, but relates to American culture. Rios’ parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as teenagers, stopped speaking to her in Spanish when she was 5 years old.
Rios has never spent lunch in TJ. Most students who hang out there “relate to the culture of Mexico,” she said. “If I was to go to TJ, they would look at me weird like, ‘Why is she here?’ ”
On the other side, in TJ, Alex Blanco, 17, ate lunch under two small trees near the school theater. This is where he and other members of the folklorico dance team spend time. Blanco said he never travels to Senior Park because, he said, “It is too far.” Blanco came to the U.S. from El Salvador six years ago. He said people made fun of him because he spoke only Spanish. At first, he was sad. But now, he said, “I’m proud of who I am. I won’t get [mad] at what they say.”
But his friends get mad.
Students in Senior Park “think they are so much better than us because they were born right here,” said Blanco’s buddy, Cecilia Ochoa, 14, a sophomore who moved to the U.S. from Mexico four years ago.
The bell rang. A student shouted “Vamonos!” Ochoa headed to her fifth-period class. She went through an alley between buildings, avoiding Senior Park. “I don’t talk to people over there,” she said. “I don’t know them.”
Montebello High illustrates a larger issue of how California and its schools have changed, said Chon Noriega, director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. Last year, 14% of the state’s schools had Latino enrollments of 80% or higher, according to a Times analysis.
Nobody expects a mostly white campus to be monolithic. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Montebello High isn’t either, Noriega said. Yet some non-Latinos are oblivious to the differences, he said, because the public thinks “about Latinos in very broad terms,” like economic and political power.
The split, he said, is natural and something Californians should understand. “It’s important for the schools to take these differences into account,” he said. “Otherwise the schools will fail in taking a cookie cutter approach” to a diverse population.
About 28% of Montebello High’s students, or 781, are still learning English in a variety of programs. An additional 46% of students, or 1,285, grew up speaking Spanish but are now considered “proficient” in English, although some still prefer speaking Spanish.
At first glance, some test scores seem to show that some English learners need extra help. Last year, only 12% of the sophomore and junior English learner students who took the California High School Exit Exam passed the math portion, while 22% passed the English portion. In contrast, 34% of English-only students passed the math part and 67% the English part.
But other numbers indicate that immigrant children are succeeding after they master English. At Montebello, 39% of sophomores and juniors who moved out of English learner programs to regular classes passed the math portion, while 86% passed the English portion. Teachers say many of those youngsters have a strong work ethic and that their parents push them to excel in school.
Principal Jeff Schwartz says he treats students equally and tries to instill respect between groups. If students are speaking English with an accent, he reminds others not to laugh because it is better for them to practice than to never learn. “I tell students to treat people the way they want to be treated.”
The outside world sometimes stereotypes his campus, he said, assuming that everyone at Montebello High speaks Spanish and just crossed the border. “Their perceptions and reality are not the same,” he said.
Fitting into mainstream English classes is sometimes hard for English learners, said Laura Galindo, bilingual facilitator at the school. Once, Galindo moved two English learners into mainstream English courses. After a few days, they came to Galindo pleading to be moved back. “They were scared,” she said. “They didn’t know anybody.” But she persuaded them to stay.
Galindo said it is not easy to bridge the two worlds. Her staff works hard to push immigrant and English learner students out of their comfort zones.
“I tell kids, ‘Join a club, join Key Club; they speak English there,’ ” Galindo said. She steers them away from soccer, or groups that focus on Latino culture, where most students speak only Spanish.
On a recent afternoon, Margo Bonsall, a freshman counselor, looked at her office walls, which are covered with posters of cheerleading teams she has advised since 1986. She spotted only a few immigrant and English learner girls, out of nearly 200.
“What is sad is immigrants come with really good skills, but they don’t have the money; they can’t afford it,” she said. When they find out uniforms and other expenses can total $1,200 a year, “there’s no way,” she said.
Priorities, she said, are also different between generations of Latino students.
Near East Los Angeles, Montebello ranks among the 10 most segregated cities in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute. It is three-quarters Latino, a major shift from 25 years ago, when the city had far more white residents.
Some Mexican American families have lived there several decades, and have watched their grandchildren lose touch with Spanish altogether. Bonsall said many of these families embrace school activities because they also attended Montebello High, or schools like it. They are often poor, but they “find a way to get their kids involved,” she said, by holding fundraisers or asking aunts, uncles and grandparents to pay for uniforms.
Children of new immigrant families seem to focus on academics more, she said. “Their goals are survival,” Bonsall said. “Cheerleading is not survival.” Others are embarrassed to yell the cheers or talk to other girls because their English skills are poor, she said. “There are self-esteem issues.”
Jesus Garcia, coach of the boys’ soccer team, said his players speak Spanish to one another on and off the field. “When I start speaking to them in English, they say, ‘Speak Spanish.’ ”
That differs from the football team, said coach Nishil Shah. He said his coaches and players call plays only in English.
Cultural differences sometimes play out in the locker room, where “the soccer team puts on Spanish music on full blast,” Garcia said. “Football players listen to heavy metal and rap.”
There is a slang term that students in mostly Latino schools use to separate those who seem more connected to their Latino roots than to American culture: “paisas.” It comes from the word “paisano,” meaning peasants or countrymen.
“It’s a softer way of saying ‘wetback,’ ” said Joe Lechuga, 17, also known as “Buddha.” He and other Mexican American students who hang out in Senior Park say the term is affectionate, not malicious.
“Then there’s the Chicanos like us,” said Buddha’s friend, Carlos Tesillo. “We wear American fashion. Not too much Mexican heritage. But we don’t forget our Mexican roots because we know we’re Mexican. We never forget it. We take pride in it.”
Buddha and Tesillo are football players. They are not hostile toward the students in TJ. In fact, they are friends with one of them, a football player named Domingo Beltran.
“Where’s Domingo? The paisa?” Buddha asked his friends one day during lunch.
“Oh, he’s over there kissing some paisa girl,” another student replied.
Beltran, 17, grew up speaking Spanish. When he speaks English, he said, “I feel stupid.” He is mainstreamed into English classes, but he regularly asks or answers questions in his first language, even when teachers demand English.
In the past, Beltran hung out only in TJ, at a shaded table near the lunch lines. Last year, he made the football team and his circle of friends expanded. Now, he traverses TJ, the border and Senior Park, always careful to divide the 40-minute lunch period among cliques.
“I spend lunch on both sides,” he said. “I don’t want my old friends to think I’m not their friend anymore.”
On a recent afternoon, he crossed the border and stopped to talk to a group of old friends in TJ lounging and speaking Spanish near a fence.
They teased Beltran: “He got into football and he got really conceited,” said Imelda Reyes, 15, giggling playfully.
“He’s too cool for us,” joked Sergio Gonzalez, 16.
Beltran shook his head and laughed it off.
He walked to another part of TJ, near the rusty bell. A soccer player passed him and slapped his hand. Beltran spoke to him in Spanish. Beltran told a visitor, “I’m thinking about trying out for the soccer team after the football season. But the [football players] would call me a traitor.... They say soccer is for Mexicans.”
He walked to the shaded tables in TJ, stopping briefly to greet another group of boys before taking off for Senior Park. He waved to them and said: “Al rato,” or later.
Within seconds of entering Senior Park, Beltran was intercepted by a group of JV football players. They patted him on the back, praising his gridiron skills. Then one boy joked: “Check his green card first.”
The group cracked up. The boy looked at Beltran and added: “We’re the ones who keep you from getting deported.”
Again, Beltran shook his head and laughed it off.