Young Love, Old Divisions

Times Staff Writer

For weeks, Lionel Kelly studied the shy girl sitting a row ahead of him instead of his earth science lessons.

As any 14-year-old boy would, he first noticed how cute she was. Her smooth skin, pink as seashells. Black hair dyed the color of applesauce, curls sprayed stiff, twisted into a long ponytail.

It did not matter that he was black and she was a Latina, even on this Jefferson High School campus scarred by last year's violent student clashes that cut through black and brown like barbed wire. It did not matter to him, even as stories of racial brawls leaked out of other schools, jails, and juvenile halls.

This was the start of Lionel's freshman year. He was trying to navigate safely through high school. He knew that he liked this girl. He also knew that when you are with your girl, "gang bangers don't mess with you."

Already, Lionel had made some critical choices on his own. When a group of boys confronted him on the P.E. field at school, challenging him to claim a gang, Lionel told them he didn't bang. When a new friend encouraged him to ditch classes and tag school walls with graffiti, Lionel chose not to.

P.E. teacher Linda St. John had been watching the growing friendship between Lionel, one of her favorite students, and the tagger. She worried about Lionel, a dimple-cheeked student who called her "ma'am."

This, she knew, was the age when nice boys can make decisions that turn terrible.

St. John called Lionel into her office. "Get an education," the bubbly white woman with big blue eyes told Lionel, "and you will be a success."

He pinned his hopes on the girl who always wore a glimmering Jesus necklace, baggy sweat shirts and no makeup.

Her name was Beatriz Chacon. At 14, she was smart, focused and fiercely stubborn. She was determined to attend college and have a career to support her parents.

At first, Beatriz tried to ignore Lionel's gaze burning through her. Boys made her wary. Friends told her to avoid the ones in gangs and crews. She heard girls had to have sex with those boys.

Beatriz decided if she could not find a worthy boyfriend, she wouldn't have one at all.

But maybe Lionel would prove himself worthy. Never had she fallen for an African American. Now here he was, sweet-talking, gentle, harmless. He dressed sharp: creased jeans, clean sneakers, colorful Ecko shirts. His dimples made her weak. He walked next to her on the track during P.E. and wrote flirty notes in geography and science.

One day last August, Beatriz agreed to be his girl, but not at the expense of her grades. Regardless of race, Beatriz was too young to date. Her mother could not know about the romance. Their love, Beatriz told him, would live in school.

In school was where Lionel needed her most.

At lunch, Beatriz and Lionel hug for so long, the school principal tells them to stop. Beatriz daydreams about going to a restaurant or a movie with him, someday. Until then, they steal kisses on campus, when they hope no one is looking.

But at Jefferson -- where hundreds of black and Latino students jumped into a series of melees last year, resulting in 25 student arrests -- someone is always looking.

More than 100 newly installed surveillance cameras watch the campus. During the two lunch periods, more than 35 administrators, security guards, counselors and school police officers supervise.

The couple knows students watch them too. One morning, Lionel walked toward a group of black students. A girl looked him up and down in disgust. He heard her say: "Oh, that's that boy that goes with that Mexican girl."

At lunch, Lionel recounted the story to Beatriz.

"So people don't want you with a Mexican girl?" she asked.

"Don't even trip about it," Lionel replied.

Jefferson is 92% Latino and 8% African American. At lunch, about 100 black students hang out near a senior class activities banner. Latino students fan out across the rest of the campus.

Another interracial couple cuddles by shaded tables. Behind the cafeteria, two best friends, one black and the other Latino, share jokes. But mostly, the races stay apart.

So far this year, there have been no large-scale race-related brawls on campus, said Principal Juan Flecha. There have been one-on-one squabbles, some of them between Latino and black students.

Other campuses have not been as fortunate. This school year, race-related brawls have roiled Fremont, Gardena and the district's newest high school at the old Santee Dairy, according to district officials.

Flecha knocks on a wooden conference table: He is hoping the school will make it to June, quietly. This year officials sent 800 students to a different school. The district spent millions on cameras, lights and landscaping. It added nine teachers and two counselors.

With more staff and fewer students, Flecha said, it is easier to quell violence on campus.

What happens outside, however, is beyond his reach.

It is a Tuesday in February, Lionel and Beatriz's six-month "anniversary" as a couple.

Beatriz decides to spend lunch in her math classroom, away from the crowd.

It would be easy for Lionel to slip into the lunch scene, jump into the conversation, even claim a gang to get respect. But if he did, he knows Beatriz would turn on him.

"I will never like it, if the person I really care about does things he is not supposed to," she said. "I try to keep on him."

Lionel follows Beatriz into her math classroom, where they receive tutoring. The teacher leaves the room for a few minutes. With a moment in private, Lionel moves in for a kiss.

Outside on the quad, a boy moves in for a punch.

A crowd is gathering, near the spot Lionel would have stood. Two students are arguing. Blows strike faces and chests.

Curious students gravitate toward the fight. Staff members break it up within three minutes. It is the second fight of the day.

Two periods later, the bell rings, signaling the end of science. Beatriz and Lionel slow dance down a flight of stairs, through the school's front doors, into a neighborhood where, on any given day, bullets could break them apart.

Holding hands, they cross the intersection of 41st Street and Hooper Avenue, where Flecha stands with a walkie-talkie.

Two weeks earlier, someone fired gunshots on this corner just as Lionel, Beatriz and about 100 other students were crossing the street on their way home from school. No one was injured.

When Flecha took over at Jefferson last year, he patrolled blocks beyond the campus on foot, to make sure students made it home safely. Police told him to stop: It was too dangerous. Now, he monitors kids from within campus boundaries.

His radio crackles. Someone is reporting students fighting down the block. Kids dash one way. A police car follows.

Lionel and Beatriz hug quickly, then part ways, disappearing down different streets.

Lionel lives two blocks from Jefferson. Shopping carts, a torn mattress and a cracked porcelain toilet litter his sidewalk. His is one of five African American families on the block. The other 30 are Latino.

Lionel's framed kindergarten and eighth-grade graduation photos hang in the tiny living room. His mother, Jackie Martin, is praying for another such photo in less than four years. She knows how bad the odds are.

Martin worries about his safety at school but not as much as she worries about it outside.

Last year, at the time of the Jefferson brawls, she noticed a crowd of teenagers facing off after school. Lionel had not yet come home. She drove toward the crowd.

Lord have mercy, she thought. It's a black and Hispanic thing.

She didn't see her son. He wasn't involved.

Lionel is not allowed to hang out in the neighborhood, so he set up a basketball hoop in his yard. One day, his ball bounced into the next door neighbors' yard. They are Mexican. The two families barely speak. Lionel asked for his ball. The neighbor called him the N-word.

"When he came inside," his mom recalled, "he had tears in his eyes."

Lionel moved the hoop into the garage.

Nowadays, he hibernates in a bedroom that is clinging to the little boy he used to be. It is decorated with Tasmanian Devil cartoon throw rugs and a comforter stitched with basketball designs. His broken nightstand holds a dictionary and two hair brushes, neatly lined side by side.

In his room, he thinks about Beatriz. He wishes her parents would let her visit.

He spent weeks working out deals with his mother to earn money to buy Beatriz a Valentine's Day gift.

Lionel's mother is not surprised that her son likes a Mexican girl. Growing up, he lived in East Los Angeles housing projects with mostly Latinos. Lionel helped Mexican and Salvadoran mothers carry groceries and clean their yards. His mother was less sociable.

"I said hi to the other mothers," Martin said, "but I never would invite them in for coffee."

When Lionel was 8, his uncle got into a nasty argument with a Latino family over a parking space. A police officer told Lionel's family to move for their safety. They did.

Lionel's mom said she does not harbor ill feelings toward Latinos. Her brothers have married Latinas. Her nieces and nephews are biracial. Lionel's stepfather, who is black, taught himself to speak Spanish so he could talk to neighbors.

Still, tension lingers.

"Latinos think they're better than us," says Lionel's aunt, Alicia Martin.

"Yes," Lionel's mother agrees, "they do."

Martin has met Beatriz at school and she likes her. The girl's good study habits influence her son, who is an average student. But, she adds: "I don't think Beatriz's family is as open-minded as we are. I don't think they would be open to Lionel."

Beatriz's mother, Carlota Chacon, knows little of Lionel. She has seen her daughter after school, talking to the tall teenager with skin rich as mole sauce.

"Is he your boyfriend?"

"No," Beatriz replies.

If, as Chacon suspects, the young man is indeed her daughter's boyfriend, it is not his skin color that worries her.

Girls her daughter's age, Chacon believes, should not pay attention to boys. Focus on school instead, she tells her. Maybe, after her quinceanera, Chacon will give her more freedom.

Beatriz does not want a quinceanera. She wants a cellphone.

Chacon knows she cannot drag her daughter away from the young woman she is becoming. In these last two years, Beatriz has started dying her hair, talking mysteriously on the phone, cooking grown-up meals for the family like rice, beans and steak.

Chacon has pinned many hopes on her daughter, fourth of five children -- her first born as a U.S. citizen. Beatriz's older siblings graduated from Jefferson but struggled when applying for jobs and college. Beatriz will have a better future, her mother says repeatedly, because "she has a Social Security number."

Her mother feels so strongly about Beatriz's grades that when word spread about a student walkout supporting immigrants rights in March, she told Beatriz not to participate. Chacon supports the cause but not enough for her daughter to miss class.

Beatriz's family lives in a two-bedroom home a mile from Jefferson. A Virgin Mary calendar hangs in their living room, next to Beatriz's framed eighth-grade graduation photo. The dining room has been converted into a bedroom. Her father drops her off at school at 7 a.m., before work at a sewing factory.

The half-black, half-Latino block on which Beatriz lives is a world away from the ranch her mother grew up on in Guadalajara. Chacon had 17 siblings and no money. She did not finish high school.

Chacon does not understand English when it is spoken to her. When her African American neighbors wave from their yards, Chacon can only wave back. She does not have black friends. Her Catholic church is all Latino. None of her family members have married outside of their race. But, Chacon says, she does not discriminate.

"We came from humble beginnings," she says, through a translator. "We learned we are not superior to anyone."

The words on the board read: "Don't ever feel sorry for yourself, cuz nobody else will."

It is fifth period geography. Inside the bungalow with sea foam paint-chipped walls, Lionel and Beatriz whisper. She is wearing the gold heart-shaped earrings he gave her for Valentine's Day.

Last night, the movie "Crash" won the Oscar for best picture.

Lionel and Beatriz watched the film in another class. If a movie could tell the story of racism, they say they would have written a different script.

To them, racism is not spelled only in black and brown. It comes in sharper shades: school benches stained with graffiti; or knowing white and Asian people only if they teach at school; or believing that if South Los Angeles flooded like New Orleans, they would not expect to be saved.

"If somebody like me got into government, I would change things," Lionel said. "People say they care. If they really did, they would make more effort to really help us out.... We got drug dealers, gang bangers. They're killing us, Latino people and black people."

"White people mostly spend their time in Beverly Hills," Beatriz said. "If you go down the street, you're not going to see no white families. It's just blacks and Mexicans."

Lionel's dream is to buy a motorcycle and zoom to a place where violence and racism do not cloud his life. He blindly throws out possibilities: Georgia? Louisiana? Malibu?

Standing at a podium one afternoon, the geography teacher tells the class: "Look under your desks for your books. We're reading today."

"There are no books!" a student shouts.

The teacher sighs, surveying his class. Eight of his 42 students do not have desks and six do not have books. A week earlier, he received two more students.

"Jefferson is broke!" a boy yells.

"You know what that means?" the teacher replies. "We all got to work harder just to make it."

Fate may have brought Lionel and Beatriz together, but a school reform nudged them along. After last year's brawls, the school divided students into clusters of "small learning communities," in which they take classes with the same teachers. Beatriz and Lionel have four classes together.

More changes are underway for Jefferson. In the fall, it will transfer 750 students, returning to a September-to-June calendar for the first time in decades. Committees are writing grant proposals to protect kids on their way to and from school. The Los Angeles Board of Education recently approved a plan to open eight charter schools nearby to relieve overcrowding.

Beatriz and Lionel don't know if they will see these changes through together. They only hope that if their love doesn't get them through the day-to-day snags of high school, a stronger force will.

In geography, Lionel is sitting on a table, without a book. Beatriz drags over a chair. Nearby, a student stretches across the table and falls asleep. Two others play hand-held video games.

Beatriz opens her book. She slides it toward Lionel.

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