For high school students looking to fight against inequality and inequity and discover their own ability to be an agent of change, Saint Martin’s University’s annual Stay Woke summit looks to be a great place to start.
An avid feminist, Huerta talked about the importance of standing up not just for social equality between men and women, but also for the rights of immigrants and workers. Among her many accomplishments, Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Union in 1965, and for her successes in establishing workers rights in California, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama in 2012.
Four EHS students — Yajaira Alcala, Cecilia Garcia, Naomi Portillo, and Esthur Jiminez — said Huerta was inspiring, especially given their shared Mexican roots. But they were just as ecstatic to be in a space where they felt they could be themselves.
“It was a really diverse event, and it was really cool to see not all white [people], to see different kinds of cultures get together and learn,” Alcala said in a later interview.
The Stay Woke event — now planning its third year — focuses on students of color, providing spaces to talk openly about cultural identity and organizing workshops geared to give attendees the language, knowledge, and tools necessary to discuss and analyze the impact of systematic racism, challenge race and sex-based stereotypes and prejudice, and more.
“I don’t think I ever felt so comfortable to just come out and say personal things that we go through every day,” Jimenez said. “It felt good to let it go. I was learning not just from our experiences, being Latina and Mexican, but from other races and cultures…. we’re not alone. Everyone has something that they’re going through.”
Part of the summit included “solidarity spaces,” where the conference broke out into groups separated by race. Organizers said that while it may seem counterproductive for a diversity event to segregate attendees, they explained it was important for students to be able to express how they feel about their cultural identity, and the difficulties and challenges that come with it, to people with similar backgrounds.
In the Hispanic group, Alcala said they discussed aspects they love about their culture, and parts they want to change.
“One thing we mentioned in my group was ‘machismo,’ ” she said. “That’s something we said we didn’t like, that we would like to change, make it equal for women and men.”
The other three students agreed — they each had stories about how important a role stringent gender stereotypes have in Mexican culture, and how they not only wanted those roles loosened for both women and men.
On the other hand, Alcala’s group said they love their Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations, and wished there was more space, both inside her school and outside in the community, to express it.
Part of the issue is that Hispanics are a minority in Enumclaw — only about 15 percent of students in the school district are Hispanic, compared to the 77 percent who are white.
“I feel like I’m more quiet when I’m around a lot of white people,” Alcala said, adding that she’s afraid other people will judge her if she expresses her culture.
“People don’t understand. If you’re doing something different, you’re wearing something different, they’ll ask you, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ ” added Portillo, who moved from Mexico to Enumclaw just four years ago. “[I’m] just trying to avoid that.”
It’s typical for teenagers to want to fit in with a larger crowd and not draw unnecessary attention to themselves, especially when it comes to racial and cultural differences. Another speaker at the Stay Woke event, 18-year-old Bria Smith from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, talked at length about how difficult it can be to personally address cultural ignorance or confront bigotry.
“My skin literally was the loudest voice of my body. I would never, ever, stick up for myself,” Smith said, recounting how she was one of the only black students in her school. “I would never, ever do that because I was afraid that what I would say would not be validated, because I was entering a space where people did not look like me. I was not represented, and I felt so alone… Since the age of six, I knew what racism and oppression was before I could even articulate the words.”
Over time, Smith overcame that fear to become the outspoken March for Our Lives Movement activist she is today, and told her audience of peers that they, too, have the power to create positive change in their communities.
This is something Alcala, Garcia, Portillo, and Jiminez are working on in different parts of their lives. In some cases, they debate with themselves about whether to respond to an individual who they feel is being disrespectful.
“We have a student, he was sitting next to me and he was mentioning stuff about my culture, Trump and the wall and everything, and saying stuff like Hispanics are rapists,” Alcala said, recalling an incident in her math class. “I was getting really mad, but… you’re not worth me yelling at you.”
But she changed her mind when the other student then said he was going to Mexico for vacation.
“I was like, dude, you just said a whole bunch of stuff about Mexicans,” she said. “I went off on him. Sometimes you need to get it out there, make them know that you do not like what they’re saying.”
Speaking up for your culture to another individual can be difficult, but it can be a wholly different beast when you’re confronting a group of people.
Garcia described a time when, around the last presidential election, a group of students stood up in the commons, chanting “Build the wall” and waving both an American flag and the Confederate battle flag while she and other Hispanic students “were just sitting there, quietly doing our work.”
The students said they wished teachers and administrators could do more about these overt culture clashes, but they also want to address some of the more subtle conflicts as well.
History class was mentioned more than a few times in this regard.
“They only focus on what whites did. They don’t focus on other cultures, what helped our country also grow,” Alcala said. “America is a country of immigrants, you know? Everyone made America, but they just focus on [white] Americans.”
The students agreed that there should be more inclusive history taught, but also said they would appreciate a class that would help them learn about other cultures.
After Huerta spoke, the students broke off to attend various workshops — Alcala and Garcia attended one called “Mother Nature’s Purpose: Cedar Bracelet Making,” which focused on how important cedar can be in some Native America cultures.
“Cedar is really sacred to them. She told us to pour or feelings into the cedar and make a bracelet out of it,” Alcala said. “It’s a really meaningful thing to them.”
Portillo and Jiminez went to the “Building Bridges, Not Walls,” workshop, which taught them the history of immigration and family separation in the U.S. Participants also discussed how schools could be made to be more inclusive in light of that history.
“It felt like, something that I thought, somebody else was thinking it,” Jimenez said. “We were really understanding each other.”
Having more tools to get to that place of understanding seems to be the ultimate takeaway for these four students, especially when it comes to cultural differences.
“It’s important to learn about other cultures and learn about what’s important to them,” Jimenez continued. “Once we see that’s important to them, we want to respect it, and we want to respect that person and what their background is. We just start to see how we all really have a lot in common.”