Click photo to enlarge
Adriana Moreno, 15, Suary Arreola, 17, Eunice Medina, 17, and Norma Vasquez, 15, left to right, talk with Daniel Estrella, 14, right, during the Raza History afterschool program at Mandela High School on the Fremont High School campus on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009, in Oakland, Calif. Teacher Cesar Cruz founded the program. (Jane Tyska/Staff)

OAKLAND

Joaquin, a teenager with family gang connections, a love for Aztec dance and a gripping fear of premature death, saw a shivering day laborer one morning and forgot about his own troubles.

"I seen him and I talked to him, but he was kind of scared of me, and I asked him if he was cold, and he told me yeah, and I seen his face and his face was pink, and I was like, 'Damn, this dude freezing,' and he only had one shirt on and he was like this and he was shaking, and I was like, 'You want my sweater?' and he was all, 'Aw, please, thank you so much,' and so I took it off. He put it on and he was all 'Thanks, man, God bless.'

"I didn't really care about me getting cold cause I got more than a sweater, you know, I got a house, I got a bed, I got some blankets, I got people who love me, and he was out there with one T-shirt on, so I don't know. It just felt cool giving it to him."

The room was quiet as Joaquin, 16, whose real name was concealed for his protection, spoke. Boys in baggy jeans and oversize hoodies, girls in skinny jeans with manicured eyebrows — they just listened. They are all part of Raza Club, a group of teenagers who come together to learn about Latino history and social justice, to share their personal struggles and grief, to lend a hand to someone in need and, maybe, to start a movement to change Oakland.


Advertisement

As the sun rises on Monday mornings, you can find them huddled on the noisy, exhaust-choked corner of High and San Leandro streets, handing out warm clothing and asking day laborers if they want leche with their cafe — a service project that started in late November.

And once a week, after dark, dozens of kids will cross gang lines to convene a weekly gathering they call "Homies Dinner" at the Eastlake YMCA. It's organized by Cesar Cruz, a Y staffer who also teaches an after-school Raza History through Film class twice a week at Castlemont and Fremont high schools. Raza Club started this fall and has grown to include about 85 teenagers from a dozen middle and high schools, as well as school dropouts.

Oakland is perhaps best known for its large African-American community, but Latino youth now form the largest ethnic group in the city's public schools, about 37 percent. Many live in neighborhoods rocked by violence and crime, on blocks dominated by Nortenos, Surenos or Border Brothers, rival Latino gangs.

"Who's sick of funerals?" Cruz asked at Homies Dinner this month. "It's like, this ain't a joke, you might get shot tonight. How will you be remembered?"

Cruz didn't exaggerate. Two days later, Antonio Nunez, 16, a boy he had invited to the history class, was shot dead in front of his house, a shooting police say was likely carried out by gang members.

Cruz says most Raza Club teens have ties to gang members or are in gangs, themselves, but that they have agreed to respect one another, regardless of their affiliations. Cruz urges them to reject violence and destruction, but he doesn't explicitly discourage gang membership; he says he sees gangs as an extension of family and a "survival mechanism."

But Juanita Estrella, 12, whose honey-colored hair hung down the back of her middle school polo shirt, said Raza Club has changed her thinking on gangs, too.

"What's the point of banging something when there's no need for it? Why you trying to bring violence in the world?" she mused, as a group of kids returned from a short field trip to Corazon del Pueblo, a shop on International and 48th Avenue filled with crafts and posters of the likes of Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara and Pedro Infante.

"I'm just trying to stay away from the gangs and trying to live my life, as a kid," Juanita said.

Living life as a kid can be harder than it looks. At Homies Dinner that night, the group watched old video clips of the Brown Berets, a Latino activist group akin to the Black Panthers, and talked about ways to make their neighborhoods healthier and more peaceful. Then Cruz invited them to pray aloud for people in their lives.

One after another, their voices faltering, they offered up their prayers: for a father, whose alcohol abuse is tearing the family apart, a friend's sister who survived a serious gunshot wound, a relative going blind from diabetes, a mother with an immigration hearing scheduled two days before Christmas.

Joaquin asked everyone to pray for him. He had received death threats, he said, and he wasn't ready to die.

"I want to be somebody in this world."

Before dispersing into the night, they formed a circle and began to clap. Slowly, at first, and then faster and faster. Loud.

"Y'all could change Oakland, y'all," Cruz told them that night. "Y'all could make history. One day when I'm studying the next whomever, I'm going to be studying about Ricardo. I'm going to be studying about Norma. I'm going to be studying about Daniel. About Gardenia, Adrian. Mercedes.

"What we got in common is we're all going to die, I don't know when. But my question to you is how are you going to live your life? Now, who wants to make a change in the Town?"

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.ibabuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.