“¡Mija, ya vamonos! Es hora de ir a la escuela.” I quickly shoved my notebook into my blue Jansport backpack, careful to not widen the hole growing on the bottom left-hand corner of the bag, and rushed into the living room. The sound of mariachi music and freshly made tortillas filled the four walls of the small yellow apartment; the rustling sound of pots and pans began to drown out the melodic lyrics. My grandma had lived in this apartment for years; she was the caretaker of almost all the children in the 16-unit apartment complex.
I skipped into the kitchen, letting her know that I was about to leave; she leaned in and gave me the sign of the cross. Then she gently pressed her lips on my forehead, “Cuidate, mija. Te quiero mucho. Que Dios te bendiga.” I gently wrapped my arms around her before stepping out the door.
Vibrant and intricate works of art covered the walls of every street; I stopped to admire the beautifully unique font before continuing my walk to school. Friendly voices and laughter filled the streets; people were sitting, talking—interacting in one way or another. I loved my neighborhood and felt pride being in my community, until I didn’t. I bounced into the classroom with joy, eager to begin the last day of third-grade.
I’m extremely proud of how hard each and everyone of you have worked this school year. I have no doubt in my mind that you will all be successful, but I have one piece of final advice for you. You NEED to leave. This environment—this neighborhood—has one of the highest rates of gangs, drugs, and crime. There’s nothing here for you, it’s dangerous. You are better than this, don’t get trapped.
In the days to come, South Central Los Angeles transformed before my eyes; the intricate works of art became graffiti—depictions of ongoing gang wars. Gang members marked their territory on the street in front of my playground. My community has gangs. The friendly people who greeted me on my walk to school became homeless people, dropouts; the deviants of society. My community is poor and uneducated. The group of neighbors who warmed the streets with laughter became drug addicts; the undesirables, the people we aren’t suppose to talk about. My community has drugs. My community is bad.
When a teacher—one of the most important role models an inner-city student has—describes a community as unworthy, that teacher denounces and further oppresses a student. South Central is home to my family, my friends, our struggles, our endeavors, and our successes. Encouraging kids from the hood to leave drains the success away from a community, perpetually keeping a disenfranchised community in poverty. The barriers of South Central are not unique and neither is my story. Convincing students—the fruits of a disadvantaged community—that leaving inner cities is the only way to succeed is a direct insult to the effort of the community.
As one of the few from my neighborhood to make it out of the hood, I am proud to say that I have recently completed my fourth year at UCLA. South Central didn’t have a lot resources to offer its students, but with a college degree, now I do—now we do.
Graduates of inner cities, as resilient products from a broken system, now it is our turn to come back to our community and improve it. Although my hometown has one of the lowest graduation rates, highest crime rates, and highest rates of poverty, it made me the person I am today; it is my home. I refuse to wait around for someone else to take action.
As former President Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” We are ready.