Sunday, August 26, 2007

Group honors Latino youth

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series on the achievements of Latino youth in the Santa Barbara Community.


Wrongdoing by a few individuals translates into misery for entire neighborhoods.
Following the March fatal stabbing in downtown Santa Barbara of a 15-year-old boy by a 14-year-old youth during a gang clash, the city’s Hispanic population endured a hard-to-swallow court hearing for a Latino charged with the homicide, and yet another gang murder in July of a 16-year-old Latino boy.

Police Chief Cam Sanchez is concerned that the violence is criminalizing entire neighborhoods of Latinos.
“I am really irked a bit because it comes down to this Latino thing…Many times all Latino kids are painted with the same brush,” Sanchez said in a June interview with the Sound.
Following the July murder, Sanchez, a Latino, spoke to the City Council about his concern — that Hispanics are stigmatized by a small number of thugs.
“Most young people in our community are doing positive things whether they are gang members, former gang members or not,” he told councilmembers. “It is a smaller percentage that causes a majority of our problems.”
This, then, is an intermittent series focusing on a dozen Latino teenagers who recently graduated from high schools in southern Santa Barbara County. They are pursuing dreams of “positive things” in higher education.
The Santa Barbara Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, at its annual awards banquet in May, honored the 12 students. Here are three snapshots.
Jason Ford, 18, of Goleta, enters Stanford University in September. Vanessa Estrada, 18, of Santa Barbara, became a freshman last Friday at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Both are graduates of Bishop Garcia Diego High School in Santa Barbara, a private school. Felipe Villegas, 17, of Carpinteria, a graduate of Carpinteria High School, begins classes at UCSB in September.

Jason Ford

Don’t misjudge Jason Ford of Goleta. Sure, he’s of average build, 5-feet, 10-inches, 150 pounds. But, hey, he’s one fit hombre.
At Bishop Garcia Diego High, Jason was a triple varsity guy – playing free safety and wide receiver on the school’s football team, goalkeeper on the soccer squad and second baseman and centerfielder on the baseball team. He’s strong and he’s fast, says Jay, his father.
Jason’s scholastic record is equally imposing – an A student who, in addition, took a fistful of honors classes.
All 53 students who graduated from Bishop in June were accepted into an institution of higher learning, says the Rev. Tom Elewaut, the principal. Thirty-seven percent of the 2007 graduation class is Hispanic, he said. The school’s enrollment in June was 270 students.
Jason, will be moving into a freshman dorm at Stanford University next month.
On its Web site, Bishop posted that since 2002, “100 percent of our graduates” have gone on to college.
“Bishop is pretty good about that,” Jason says with a bit of understatement in a recent telephone interview.
A well-rounded education was Jason’s goal in high school, and he will continue on that path at Stanford.
English literature and engineering may sound like disparate subjects to the casual observer of academe, but they work for Jason, who combined his love of English literature at Bishop with a penchant for, as he puts it, “engineering and making stuff” at home in Goleta.
“My favorite class (in high school) was English literature, which is kind of odd for an engineer, I guess,” he says. “My favorite book is (Ernest Hemingway’s) “The Sun Also Rises.” He adds that he read a lot of poetry in high school. On the science side, Jason has a passion for engineering. He says he’s “drawn to designs in alternative energies for electricity, converting ocean swells into usable electricity. It’s the next step in renewable energies.”
Stanford, he suggests, should be a seamless transition because of its emphasis on encouraging “students to be well-rounded in the humanities even if pursuing a technical major,” he wrote for his high school councilor.
“He’s a tinkerer,” says Jay, his father. “He’s always designing things.”
Jason says his parents “were involved in our lives,” referring to his two younger brothers, ages 13 and 17, and a sister, 21, who attends Pepperdine University in southern California.
His mother, Martha, whose maiden surname is Ruiz, emigrated to the U.S., at age 16, from Mexico, in the early 1970s, along with her family. She learned English at Santa Barbara High School and went on to gain a teaching credential from UCSB, Jason says. She currently is a Spanish tutor.
His father, Jay, a financial investor, grew up in Texas, and attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara. He married Martha in 1985.
The parents teamed up to home school their children from the 4th grade to the start of high school. Actually, Jason says, he taught himself through grades 7 and 8.
Jason has set some lofty goals for himself. On the questionnaire he filled out for his high school councilor, he says, “My ultimate goal is to establish an engineering company geared toward innovating and inventing to improve the lives of disadvantaged peoples.
“In this way my company would invent more than just machines, we would introduce processes that produce life – such things as water purification and affordable/cheap-to-donate shelter for the most needy.”

Vanessa Estrada

We experience life-changing epiphanies at different ages and at all sorts of places. Consider Vanessa Estrada’s epiphany at age 14. Of all places, it occurred at the Santa Barbara Zoo.
Vanessa was a day-camp counselor –in-training one summer at the zoo, working with youngsters, ages 5 and 6. She loved it.
“I like working with children, “ she recalls, taking kids around the zoo, interacting with other children and the animals.
Indeed, the experience set the course for her high school and, now, college years. Since then, for example, she says, “I have been involved with tutoring young people in math and English.”
Vanessa, of Santa Barbara, nearly an A student at Bishop Garcia Diego High, is sharing a freshman dorm room with another Bishop coed from her graduating class.
Her proud parents drove her last Friday in a two-vehicle caravan, her mother leading the way in a packed SUV, to Loyola Marymount University on the far west side of Los Angeles.
“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” she said during a telephone interview.
Like Jason Ford, she says she greatly enjoyed English literature at Bishop. One of her favorite novels, she says, is “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The curriculum in her first few years at Loyola, also like Jason’s at Stanford, will be heavy in liberal arts subjects. Then, she will enter the major of her choice, elementary education, to prepare for a career as a schoolteacher. First grade youths, in their formative years, are the children she most wants to instruct.
A pre-school teacher, Linda James, at Notre Dame School in Santa Barbara, which Vanessa attended, inspired her.
“She is always looking out for the best for me,” she says. “I consider her family.”
Vanessa credits her mother, Martha, with keeping her focused on studies and goals.
Martha Estrada was divorced from her husband, Ricardo, when Vanessa was 4 years old. An 8-year old half-sister lives with her father, who works for a Goleta company.
For all these years, Vanessa says, she and her mother regularly had dinner together at their upper State Street area residence.
“Mother always asks how my day went. Then, when she was done, it was my turn to ask her how her day went.”
Ricardo takes a big interest in her life, too. “We talk every night and he goes to all of my sports,” Vanessa says.
Vanessa was co-captain of Bishop’s women’s varsity soccer team on which she played halfback, and a setter on the women’s varsity volleyball team.
Ricardo, who lives in Santa Maria, says he is “in awe of Martha and what a great job she’s done” in raising Vanessa.
Martha emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 4 years old; Ricardo emigrated from Mexico, too, when he was about 11.They married in Mexico in the mid-1980s.
“My mother and father taught me Spanish,” Vanessa says. Both parents now speak English. However, she says, “my father speaks to me in Spanish so I don’t forget the language.”
Ricardo, in a separate telephone conversation, said his daughter was practically bilingual as soon as she talked as a baby. “With me, sometimes she (slips and) says a word in English. I remind her what the word is in Spanish.”
Both parents contribute toward the cost of Vanessa’s education.
“I’ve been working two jobs to put Vanessa through school,” Martha Estrada says.

Felipe Villegas

He was anxious to jump-start his university career. As a result, Felipe Villegas already has 20 advanced credits awaiting him when he enters UCSB in September.
Felipe, a June graduate of Carpinteria High School, is fascinated by computers and computer animation.
“It’s something like I just do,” he says. “A lot of what I know about computers is self-taught.” He says he’s aiming for a graduate degree in computer engineering.
Of the 172 students in Felipe’s graduating class, 58 percent were Hispanic, says Gerardo Cornejo, the Carpinteria High principal. Approximately 95 percent of the graduates indicated they intended to go on to college, he says.
As of last June, the school had 820 students, of which 60 percent were Hispanic, Cornejo says.
If you visit Felipe at his house in Carpinteria, you just might find him totally focused on what, for the layman, appears to be an incomprehensible pile of computer parts.
“I build computers. I find parts online, “ he said in a telephone interview. About 90 minutes is the time he says he can piece together a Windows-based computer.
“I can build it for friends,” if they provide him with the parts, he says. But not laptops, which he calls “messy” to construct.
His mother, Consuelo, and his father, with the same first name, Felipe, emigrated from Mexico about two decades ago. Felipe Villegas owns a masonry business, and Consuelo manages it.
His father can be very creative, Felipe says, building fountains and gates. Much of his work can be seen in Montecito.
Both parents speak English, but Spanish is spoken in the house. Besides Felipe, there is another son, 12 years old, who also speaks Spanish and English.
“They don’t want me to lose it,” Felipe says of his parents decision to speak their native language while at home.
Actually, Felipe knows three languages, having taken French in high school. He had a chance to practice his French last April when his language teacher took 15 students in his class to Paris. “It was fun,” he says.
The Villegas family has lived in their Carpinteria home for about 14 years. Recently, using the elder Felipe’s talent, the house was remodeled so that now, the son suggests, it has a million-dollar image. Given the town’s zooming property values, the younger Felipe’s description may not be far-fetched.
Much of Felipe’s high school work involved science courses, including biology, advanced biology and physics. His overall grade average was almost straight A.
Felipe talks about his academic excellence almost as if it was as easy as, well, piecing together a computer.
“In biology, I didn’t need to take notes,“ he says. “They really didn’t help me.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt to have Rob Lindsay for a biology teacher.
Lindsay immediately springs to his mind when a reporter asks about instructors he won’t soon forget.
Felipe had Lindsay twice, once as a freshman, and again a few years later, in advanced biology.
“One thing, for sure,” he says, “students didn’t fall asleep in Lindsay’s class.” It wasn’t that the teacher was so strict, it was that he was so funny.
“His style of (humor) is like a comic on a stage. (Students) don’t go to sleep cause they’ll miss a joke.”
A schoolteacher who sprinkles stand-up comedy into biology lectures? Talk about subliminal learning!
Felipe’s narrow focus on outdoor activities and reading habits suggest he is economical in parceling his time.
With the exception of neighborhood soccer games, he says he doesn’t participate much in outdoor activities.
As for reading, he appears to lean toward nonfiction. “I’m the kind of person who has to find reason and logic” in a book, he says. “It’s not a made up story that I can wrap my head around.”
Still, he understands that liberal arts form a big part of the learning process. In his senior year, he took an advanced college-level course in government and politics. He also recognizes that at UCSB he will be immersed in a humanities curriculum while advancing into computer engineering.
At the end of the day, the family gathers around the dinner table. Soccer is their national pastime. A television set is nearby. The evening news is another TV attraction.
There are times, though, when the TV is dark. Supper-talk turns from the daily routine to what’s happening in distant places. No surprise, Iraq surfaces.
”We all share the same opinion (on the Iraq conflict),” Felipe says. “It is a distraction from what we should be doing - going after the (terrorists) we should be going after.”

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