Chicano Youth Leadership Conference: Recap

11:59 AM

This past weekend, I attended the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference at Camp Hess Kramer, in Malibu. The conference functioned as a multitude of things--a massive college workshop, a networking event, a community- builder, a celebration of culture, and more. I was able to attend the camp through the nomination of my teacher, Dr. Serna. Staying at Camp Hess Kramer overnight, absorbing the energy, I was affected profoundly. I came home with a flurry of ideas, feeling truly refreshed. 

The most prominent effect the CYLC had on me was a re-invigoration of my activism. With college looming so closely, my schedule has been packed with book work and extracurricular activities. My involvement in activism was limited to social media and conversations, most of which dealt with POC, not Chicano specific, problems. On the first night of the conference, we watched a movie about the 1968 Chicano Walkouts. I had some vague knowledge on the event, but I never realized the proximity and depth of it. Chicano students in East L.A. were severely underserved. Speaking Spanish was dealt with using corporal punishment. College was never encouraged, boys were directed into a trade, and girls into cosmetology or marriage. Dropout rates were sky-high. All that was going on only a drive away--some of the students at the conference were from the very schools that walked out! The film was enlightening and inspiring. There was so much power in seeing the Black Panthers portrayed standing alongside the Brown Berets, so much trauma in witnessing the police treatment of the protesters, most my age.  I even learned that the organizers of the walkout attended the very conference I was at, and were inspired by it to resist. After the movie, we were able to meet to some of those leaders: Paula Crisostomo- Romo and Vicki Castro. Seeing history before my eyes, and hearing them speak of trivial things, like meeting a boyfriend at the CYLC or Vicki having to drive around to spread word about the walkouts, was heartwarming. There was a new layer of familiarity that was built when they told those stories. I realized the extreme, extreme importance of knowing your history, as iterated by Mr. Sal Castro, a teacher who pushed Paula and Vicki to attend the CYLC. I realized that not knowing my history meant it did not happen, and that I had to speak it to preserve the legacies of my people. 
Image result for chicano pipeline
Via: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center
The one statistic that hit me the most was about the Chicano Pipeline. Only half of Chicanos graduate high school, and the number diminishes to a 0.2% of Chicanos earning a pHD degree. Only 0.2%. The number was so meek, so defeated. In that moment I felt furious. In that moment, I felt...lucky. I am not attempting to exalt myself, but I am a fairly academically accomplished person. I have a handful of scholarships, a challenging curriculum, and straight As. Graduating high school was not even a point of contention for me--it was a given. As was college. But, while I do work hard, I feel it is important to me to acknowledge the systematic help I have received. My parents were lucky enough to invest a lot of time in my education as an infant. I live in an area with relatively good schools. I am still poor, and my family still struggles, but I feel that I cannot hide completely behind that card. It is unfair. Learning about the Chicano Pipeline snapped me out of the bubble that my high achieving school was encapsulated in. It also gave me an overwhelming urge to do something about it. An inspiring thing concerning this, however, was the sheer amount of educated Chicanos that made up the staff and volunteers of the CYLC. All of them attended college, and had at least a Bachelor's degree. Many held a doctorate. Just them being there was resistance to a system pitted against them. They preached about the importance of disrupting white spaces, even though it was hard. They urged us to not be tokenized, to come back to our communities and work to combat the issues they face. Their presence, along with that of Paula and Vicki's, was evidence that representation matters so much. A number of educated POC assimilate into white society, and a severe lack of leadership is one of the problems low income and minority communities face. In a speech, my friend Victoria Walker once quoted: "What you see is what you believe." I think that is important. 

The awakening of a new kind of Chicano- based activism in me was the deepest impact of the CYLC, but I learned much more. On Saturday night, we had a campfire. The campfire, under a sky where the stars were completely visible, was one of the highlights of the conference. We drank hot chocolate and ate Mexican sweet bread. We listened to a band from Veracruz, and danced around the fire. When a girl in front of me sighed, "This smells like El Salvador," I felt both pride and sorrow. Pride in the beauty of our countries, in the simple, resilient lyrics the band sang. Sorrow at the fact that I have never been to my native country. Only 20 years ago, nothing, my parents lived a life completely different from mine. My parents, only educated up to the 8th grade, had their worlds within the scope of their town. Their parents, my grandparents, had even less than that. I thought about how much emotional sacrifice my parents gave up to come to this country. I thought about how my life, with dreams of Ivy Leagues and art museums, was a world apart from my grandmother's, who had to travel an hour on horse to even approach a road leading to town. I felt it extremely important to continue to acknowledge their work. Even if it was through a dumb fire in the middle of Malibu, I felt a connection to the experiences of my ancestors. Being able to feel that is something I am very grateful for.

The emotional aspect of the CYLC did not mean I did not have fun! The attendants were organized into indigenous "nations," and these nations were the site of many discussions and confessions. My nation, the Hopi nation, clicked in an awesome way. We progressed from not being able to come up with any chants, to coming up with a dozen. We screamed our hearts out, talked about our college fears, and played ninja. I left the CYLC with a community of people I could relate to on levels beyond sharing the same culture--though that was cool, too. My chants of "Hopi!" turned into other declarations: "Chicana!" "Jalisco!" "South Bay!" Being able to declare your origins so freely just felt good. There was so much power in that simple action. By the end of the conference, I thought about those fun aspects of the camp as acts of preservation, which Sal Castro so emphasized. Preserving my roots meant they existed and were important! That is the most beautiful lesson any POC in this country could hear. 

Special thanks to the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference, the Sal Castro Foundation, and Dr. Serna for providing me with such an amazing opportunity! 

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