Voice of Experience

Painful Memories Buoy Leticia Quezada's Fight for Bilingual Schools

Leticia Quezada is reliving her immigrant experience: She is 13 and in the eighth grade. A former straight-A student in Juarez, Mexico, she is getting F’s at a new school in Pittsburg, Calif. Determined to make sense of the foreign language filling her ears, she drills herself to the point of exhaustion every night, sleeps with a dictionary under her pillow and attends classes religiously.

“I experienced a lot of trauma, alienation, anger and embarrassment,” Quezada, 36, says, recalling the cultural barriers she faced as an adolescent immigrant.

She, a younger sister and her widowed mother had abandoned their adobe home in a squatters community across the border from El Paso. Tex., and immigrated to California after her father died of tuberculosis.

“Those were the most difficult times of my life,” Quezada recalls, “because my father always instilled in me the desire to have a good education, and here I wasn’t learning anything in the classroom.”

It was a time of her life that eventually inspired a fierce commitment to bilingual education and Latino parent involvement in the schools. As only the third Latino (and first Latina) to serve on the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Quezada now has the power to help realize that commitment.

“Because of my own experiences as a child who was Spanish-speaking and struggling, poor and powerless, I want to help make a change,” she says of her role as the District 5 board member who represents 540,000 Angelenos, including 150,000 students attending 103 schools.

But too often, she says, her enthusiasm for bilingual education is criticized by members of Los Angeles’ Anglo and African-American communities who ask, ” ‘Why does it appear that you only care about Latino children?’ “

“I say I care for all the children in the district,” Quezada says. “I think all the children should be bilingual. It makes sense in this, a multicultural city in a multicultural state in a multicultural nation.

“I say to my critics, ‘It’s not that I only care about Latino children but they are the children whose interests I am supposed to represent.’ ” (Sixty-two percent of the students in the school district are Latino and half of them are limited in their English proficiency; about 90% of the students represented by Quezada are Latino.)

From East Los Angeles to Eagle Rock and Mt. Washington, from El Sereno to the southeast cities of Bell, Huntington Park, Maywood, Cudahy and Vernon, Quezada says the needs of the Latino students in District 5 “are so great and the track record of this school district serving their needs and enabling them to be productive citizens is so atrocious.”

She emphasizes her point with statistics that she repeats to other school board members, teachers, principals, legislators and parents.

“Last year 50% of our school district’s 17,000 dropouts in grades 9 to 12 were Latino students. Last year, 980,000 bachelor degrees were awarded in this country and only 27,000 went to Latinos.”

Quezada says statistics like these drive her toward change, and talking about that change reminds her of her childhood again.

She is helping her mother, Lola, and father, Feliciano, make clay bricks from sand and straw that they carried up a hill to build a three-room adobe house. They moved from a cardboard shack with a dirt floor and no electricity or plumbing to the house on the hill with a back-yard swing.

“My father believed in changing. We grew up poor but he knew we wouldn’t be squatters forever,” says the woman who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz in 1975 and a year later, a master’s degree in education from Cal State Sacramento.

Eleven years later, she was carrying the banner for the district’s “Master Plan for the Education of the Limited English Proficient Students” who currently number 187,000. Of that total, 165,000 speak Spanish.

The Master Plan — as it is more commonly known — was adopted in 1987, Quezada’s first year in office. It addresses the need for more bilingual teachers and spells out how the district can train teacher assistants to become bilingual teachers.

Quezada fought and won to get a $5,000 salary incentive for bilingual teachers — the highest given to bilingual teachers in the country. Her plan also includes a rigorous college program for teaching assistants — who number 10,000 and include college students interested in education and mothers working part-time for years at schools — to reach full-fledged bilingual teacher status.

“We hire about 2,000 teachers in the school district a year, but unfortunately we don’t hire the number of bilingual teachers that we want and that we need,” she says. “I’m hoping that through the process of a career ladder that we can basically grow our own.”

Quezada’s plan is not without its opponents. Sally Peterson, president of Learning English Advocates Drive (LEAD), a 2-year-old, 20,000-member organization based in Sun Valley, opposes the methods used in the district’s bilingual education program and she doesn’t always agree with how Quezada or the district is doing its job.

“We are not anti-Hispanic,” says Peterson, a kindergarten teacher at Glenwood Elementary in Sun Valley. “We are simply opposed to the school district’s bilingual program because what the program does is take a Hispanic child and teach that child in Spanish. There are classrooms where Spanish is spoken all day long. How are the children going to learn English? And the parents are so misled because they are being told their children are learning both languages and the children are not.”

Peterson says methods such as English as a Second Language “or any other technique to develop English and use a child’s native language as a last resort are much more beneficial because the child has to learn to listen to English.

“I admire Leticia Quezada, but I wish she would really hear what we are saying,” says Peterson.

Someone is hearing what Quezada is saying. Her plan is garnering attention from school districts in New York and Miami that are struggling to meet the needs of immigrant children who do not speak English.

Voted into office in 1987 for a four-year term — which she would like to repeat in 1991 — Quezada’s supporters say they respect her low-key approach.

“To many, she has become a role model though she is very low-key,” says Lupe Simpson, principal of Nimitz Junior High School in Southeast Los Angeles. “But don’t get me wrong. She is very articulate. She does her homework on issues, which is why she doesn’t have to get into confrontational situations with other board members.”

Belen Eller, a Northeast Los Angeles Latina parent with children in kindergarten, elementary and junior high school, agrees.

“She’s not a screamer, she’s diplomatic,” says Eller, who often is up past 3 a.m. watching delayed broadcasts of Monday night school board meetings on cable television.

For Quezada as well as the six other board members, the sessions sometimes run into the early morning hours. Other weeknights are frequently booked with school events or meetings with Latino parent groups. Weekends are just as packed. She is either speaking at Latino functions, attending banquets for Latino groups or home writing reports for her full-time job as manager of community relations and Latino marketing for the Carnation Co.

She has been with the company for the last nine years — as long as she has been married to Steven Uranga, 41, a city management analyst for the Community Development Department of Los Angeles.

“One of the cornerstones that makes Leticia tick is the commitment to empower those who don’t have it, especially the parents she represents,” Uranga says.

One of those parents is Martha Cardenas, a Cypress Park mother of two children, one in junior high and one in senior high school.

“Being involved at the district level is new for me,” says Cardenas, a member of the Hispanic Parent Coalition, a group of Latinos who regularly meet with Quezada.

“She has encouraged us as parents to stay informed because she is willing to share information with us. She keeps us aware of all the things the district is doing in regards to dropouts, overcrowding, bilingual education.”

City Councilman Richard Alatorre says Quezada “has an ability to bring parents together and explain the educational process to them.” Alatorre, who supported her appointment as a trustee to the Los Angeles Community College District five years ago, met Quezada in 1981 during the city’s redistricting battle. He says since Quezada won election to the school board he has seen her “mature as a leader.”

So far, how does Quezada rate her own performance?

“I’m doing fair,” she says. “I am forceful and I articulate a very specific point of view.”

School Board President Jackie Goldberg agrees with Quezada’s own assessment.

“Because of Leticia’s corporate background she has a style that definitely wants to get to the heart of the matter with as little nonsense and hullabaloo as possible. That’s not always possible, but she strives for that.”

Roberta Weintraub, who has served on the school board for more than 10 years, says Quezada is extremely businesslike. “She is very efficient and corporate because she works in corporate America. She is diligent and thorough.

“I don’t always agree with her. We disagreed for a long period of time on the issue of overcrowding. I see it as a matter of absolute necessity and she saw it as not,” Weintraub says. “But she has my respect and admiration. I fully expect her to move on politically and hope that she would.”

So would others, including Anna Ortega, president of Comision Femenil, an organization that promotes the advancement of Latinas. Quezada is a former president of the group and responsible for grooming Ortega as its leader.

“I didn’t think of myself as a leader until I met Leticia,” says Ortega, assistant director of rent stabilization in the Los Angeles city Community Development Department.

“When I look back I can see lessons that she was teaching me all the time,” she says, adding that Quezada encouraged group members “to speak up and be assertive and forceful about women’s rights, affirmative action and education.”

Says Quezada: “I believe you have to develop other leadership to take your place. That’s a real shortcoming that we Latinos have.”

And that is why she is committed to making leaders out of the Spanish-speaking who, she says, too often take passive roles in the education of their children because they are intimidated by an Anglo-run, English-speaking school district.

“My statement is that if this school district wants to communicate with Latino parents and if this school district wants to have Latino parents participate in the education of their children, this school district has to communicate in Spanish, in addition to English.”

Toward that end, Quezada says she has been a catalyst for having school district documents — such as the recent districtwide report on overcrowding published in English — go out to parents in Spanish as well. She is responsible for having Spanish-language interpreters at school board meetings “so parents can feel welcome” and is looking at the possibility of having an interpreter do voice-overs for the cable televised sessions.

Parent participation at Wilson High School in Northeast Los Angeles has increased as a direct result of Quezada’s influence, according to principal Ramon Castillo, the first Latino principal in that school’s 53-year history.

“She has had night meetings here in which she addressed the problems and possible solutions to the gang situation. With each meeting more and more parents attended because she familiarized the community with the problem by including administrators, teachers, the police, and most important, the parents,” Castillo says.

“Contrary to popular belief,” Quezada says, “There are many active Latino parents in our schools. I encourage those parents to demand information and to expect that their children get a quality education. If we want parents to be a part of the education of their children they have to know by experience.

“To have parents come in and make demands on a school or a teacher or a school board member should not be viewed as troublesome, but rather as an asset,” she says.

Quezada is quick to recall her own parents. Her mother had to cross the Juarez border into El Paso every Sunday to work as a maid, cook and baby-sitter until the next Friday when she returned. During the week, Quezada attended school, kept house and cared for her sick father, a miner with a second-grade education. He always spoke to her about the importance of a good education. Afflicted with tuberculosis, he died at age 33. Leticia was just 9 years old. Four years later, her immigrant experience began.

And that’s why Quezada says she knows exactly how the Spanish-speaking students in the district feel about sitting in a classroom and learning the English language from scratch.

But she is confident the students she refers to as “the children” will survive. She has set a plan in action so that they might. And she believes in a philosophy she says works: the personal touch.

“Whoever you are in the school district, you have to live every single moment of your workday believing that what those children need from you is caring. They are not masses of human beings. They are not problems. They are hungry for education and we must feed their souls with it.”

Comments are closed.