Georgia: Hispanic teenagers join mainstream

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Dec 31 15:59:30 UTC 2006

>>From the NYTimes,  December 31, 2006

The Latino South: Hispanic Teenagers Join Southern Mainstream


 The buzzer blares and the students pour into the hallways bubble gum
snapping, locker doors slamming as the young man of the moment saunters
through the admiring crowd at Atkinson County High School. He is thin and
wiry with a whisper of a mustache and a taste for enormous Hollywood-style
sunglasses. Like most popular boys, he receives flurries of party
invitations and whispered confidences from pretty girls. Like other
students, he juggles homework and dreams of becoming a singing sensation.
In fact, in this tiny town, the most remarkable thing about him is his
name, Frankie Ruiz.

In October, Frankie and a classmate, Kristen Galarza, made local history
when they were named homecoming king and queen, the first time Hispanics
won both titles in the same year. The coronation stirred astonishment,
jubilation and some outrage in this Southern town, which is being
transformed by Latino migration and is still struggling to adapt to its
evolving ethnic identity. While Hispanics now account for more than 20
percent of the population here, they still live mostly on the margins of
society, largely invisible in local politics and the upper echelons of
business. As adults, Hispanics, blacks and whites rarely mix socially. But
in the bustling classrooms of Atkinson High, Hispanic teenagers are slowly
but steadily integrating into student life. The transition is sometimes
awkward and painful, but young people here are casually challenging the
traditional social hierarchy in ways once unimaginable.

As Hispanic migrant and factory workers, Frankies relatives have long been
considered outsiders. But Frankie, the American-born son of a Mexican
father and a Puerto Rican mother, is the ultimate insider at Atkinson
High. Everyone knows me, said Frankie, 17, an affable joker who swings
easily between English and Spanish and savors cornbread as much as
tortillas. I live in both worlds. Atkinson High might seem an unlikely
laboratory for ethnic mixing. The school, which opened in 1955, barred
blacks until 1970. In 1994, it was only 4 percent Hispanic, state
statistics show, while now the population of 514 students is 50 percent
white, 26 percent Hispanic and 22 percent black. Hispanic and black
students wear their school colors, red and white, as proudly as their
white classmates do.

Faculty members at Atkinson High, which is led by Paul Daniel, the
principal, marvel at the changes. Ive never taught at a school where
Hispanics were on the football team or the cheerleading squad, said Edwin
Collins, a Spanish teacher. I have girls with Hispanic boyfriends and boys
who wish they had Hispanic girlfriends, said Mr. Collins, who has taught
for nearly 20 years. Its different from anything Ive ever seen. There is
Jose Rodriguez, a linebacker and a captain of the football team, who
helped his fellow players reach the playoffs in November. Leon Martinez
and Azucena Ponce are among the growing number of Hispanic students on the
honor roll.

And then there is Cecilia Diaz, a sophomore who recently invited white and
black friends to her quinceaera, the traditional 15th birthday celebration
of a Hispanic girls passage into womanhood. To her familys surprise, the
students celebrated almost as much as the Mexican guests. Frankie, who
prides himself on his glittering diamond earrings and pristine white
Nikes, dates black, white and Hispanic girls alike. He says his dating has
raised eyebrows, but not tensions, perhaps because Hispanics here are
viewed as occupying a racial space somewhere between blacks and whites.
They were like, You go out with black people?  Frankie said, describing
the response to a former girlfriend. And I was like, Yeah. Whats the big

After all, he was born in Georgia, in neighboring Coffee County, and has
attended public schools with their mix of black, white and Hispanic
students for most of his life. He cannot imagine restricting himself to
one group of friends. So in Earth Science class one recent morning, he
joshed with black classmates, who teased that he was stealing his sense of
style from them.  (His haircut that day included two stars etched on one
side of his head.)  Minutes later, he was in the hallway, comforting a
white friend upset with a teacher and grinning for photos with Hispanic
friends. Zack Harper, a white senior, said more and more teenagers were
socializing regardless of race or ethnicity. Everyone talks and mingles
here, said Zack, who has invited Frankie to his house and has visited
Frankies home.

But the increased presence of Hispanic students has not come without
tension. Several Hispanic teenagers have been suspended for involvement in
gang activity, school officials say. Some students still offend their
Hispanic classmates with clumsy or hostile remarks. (Frankie said one
student asked him, Do Mexicans eat cats and dogs? Another asked, Do your
parents sell drugs?) In response to such comments, some Hispanic teenagers
retreat into the comfort of ethnic solidarity. Other students do the same.
In the cafeteria, Hispanics, blacks and whites still sit mostly in
separate groups as they huddle over trays of steak nuggets and canned

And while some cheered Frankie and Kristens homecoming victory, others
feared it signaled that Mexican immigrants were beginning to dominate town
life. Everybody in school likes them, so some people were happy, said
Brittany Young, a white junior, describing the reactions of white
residents to the homecoming vote. But others were just like, Oh my God,
no, they didnt just win, she said.  Brittany said some worried there might
not be another white homecoming king and queen at Atkinson High, given the
growing number of Hispanic students.

Sydney Taylor, a black senior who was a contender for homecoming king,
said he thought the voting was manipulated to ensure the victory of two
Hispanic students. He said he did not believe that blacks and whites would
offer enough support for Frankie and Kristen to win. He said he had no
proof; the faculty, after all, tallies the student votes. But his
outspoken anger over the subject drove a wedge between Sydney and Frankie,
who stopped speaking for weeks. I really didnt pay no mind to it, Frankie
said. It doesnt bother me. But at times, Frankie cannot help but feel the
distance between his life and those of his Southern friends, even as they
all cheer the football team, flit back and forth from one anothers homes
and wrestle with Newtons law of gravitation.

Most of his white friends have parents with college degrees and big
houses. Frankie lives in a mobile home with two sisters and his mother,
who never completed high school. One of his best friends has a BMW, while
his family has yet to replace his Mitsubishi Galant since the motor blew
out while he was speeding last summer. He tries to meld both worlds, but
that can prove awkward. When he invites his Southern friends to Hispanic
parties, they often stand uneasily on the sidelines, unfamiliar with
reggaetn, the blend of reggae, rap and Latin rhythms that gets Frankie
moving on the dance floor. And he occasionally feels out of place when he
is the lone Hispanic in the crowd. You feel kind of nervous, Frankie said.
You wonder, What do they really think of me?

So he keeps all of his friends close, but his Hispanic friends closer,
including the homecoming queen, Kristen, who did not respond to requests
for an interview. I like hanging out with everybody, Frankie said. But I
guess I still feel more comfortable around Hispanic people. In part, that
is because he said he still feels like Hispanic teenagers often struggle
harder than others. If he graduates as expected in the spring, he will be
the first in his family to complete high school. Many of his friends have
already abandoned that goal. Of the 15 Hispanic friends who started high
school with him, only 5 remain, he said. The rest dropped out to help
support their families or simply gave up.

In 2004, 47 percent of the Hispanic seniors graduated from Atkinson High,
compared with 62 percent of whites and 36 percent of blacks, state
statistics show. Frankie dreams of joining the Navy or going to college to
become a fashion designer or hitting the big time as a reggaetn performer.
Making it, he says, will be much harder without a diploma. So he studies
to get decent grades, ignores clumsy remarks about Hispanics and steers
clear of clothing styles favored by Hispanic gangs to avoid unwanted
attention from watchful teachers or police officers. He wants to make
people feel good, he says, not to make waves. So when his classmate Sydney
started talking again, Frankie laughed and shrugged off weeks of tension.
Soon they were chatting, and Sydney was swinging by the record store where
Frankie works after school to check out the hottest CDs. We dont always
share a lot of common stuff, Frankie said of his black and white friends,
but we all still hang.


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