Speakers implore Latino students to 'break the chain'

  • November 21, 2008

By Matt O'Brien
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/08/2008 04:29:19 PM PST

There are the statistics, and then there are the stories that defy them.

When the radio personality Edgar "ShoBoy" Sotelo walked to a podium Friday morning at the Concord campus of Cal State East Bay, an auditorium full of Latino youths raised camera phones in the air to capture his picture.

Then, their cheers quieted to rapt attention as the 26-year-old DJ shared a gripping tale of coming to the United States poor, and later battling the low expectations of a school system that did not think he could succeed.

"I'm not going to let them dictate my life, so I went out and got help, because my parents didn't understand the system," he said. "They immigrated here just to be able to survive. Now, we have to go above survival."

Hundreds of area Latino high school students spent Friday engaged in intimate conversations with local business people and professionals as part of an annual student conference sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Contra Costa County.

"You can relate to the people who are speaking," said Alma Perez, 17, a senior at Mt. Diablo High School who aims to go to college next year and become a social worker. Perez participated in a round-table discussion with a local businesswoman who wove practical advice with personal experiences from her Mexican immigrant family.

In another room, local entrepreneurs were sharing the perils and potentials of opening restaurants and selling real estate.

"Being without a college education, I had to work 80 hours a week when I first opened our business," said Ramon Velasco, owner of El Tapatio restaurant in Pleasant Hill. Some of the students later came up to Velasco looking for after-school jobs. But he also implored them to focus on going to college, saying he had the opportunity to do so but didn't take it.

Mt. Diablo High student Vianey Martinez, 17, who wants to be "either a hairstylist or a probation officer," was comforted Friday to hear that adults who now count themselves as successful faced some of the same problems she has had in school.

"They put me in ELD (English Language Development) even though I think I speak English correctly," said Martinez, who believes the remedial class wasted time she could have devoted to another subject.

Julian Andrade, 16, a student at Olympic High School in Concord, said his parents came to the United States illegally, work in landscaping and housekeeping and want him to do something better with his life.

"They want to see me go to college," Andrade said. "I want to go to the Air Force. ... I want to be a role model for my younger brothers, show them if I could do it, they could do it."

The conference was called "Closing the Gap," and was designed to discourage the high dropout rates that disproportionally affect Latino students in Contra Costa County and nationwide. A 2007 report by the Public Policy Institute of California found the state has about 265,000 out-of-school immigrant youths between the ages of 13 and 22, with 90 percent of them from Mexico or Central America. Those out-of-school youths have higher poverty rates, less English language skills and fewer opportunities for bettering their lives than those immigrant youths who remain in school.

Manny Moon, a 23-year-old from Martinez studying public administration at Diablo Valley College, said those were the kinds of numbers that spurred him to volunteer for the conference, hoping to encourage students some years younger than him.

He was so stunned by statistics he read in his sociology class this fall that he memorized them: Only 58 percent of Latino males graduate from high school, he said, and 60 percent of Latinas. A smaller number, 11 percent of males and 12 percent of females, have made it through college, he said. "I know we're smarter than that," Moon said.

Sotelo, who has held an afternoon slot on La Kalle 100.7 for a little more than a year, told of one older brother who struggled with alcoholism to become a top pastry chef, and another, Eduardo "Piolin" Sotelo, who faced immigration problems but is now one of the country's top Latino radio hosts.

He invoked the election of Barack Obama as proof "we live in a country now, because of what happened on Tuesday night, where you cannot use your skin, or your background, as an excuse anymore. That's out the door."

He said the students had the choice to change the statistics. "Break that chain," Sotelo said. "You can do it. Si quieres, puedes. If you want it, you can do it."

Reach Matt O'Brien at 925-977-8463 or mattobrien@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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