A couple of months back, while I was away from home, I was asked to discuss one issue that mattered the most among the El Paso community.
With everything being interconnected, you cannot just pull one issue and ignore the others. Immigration. Education. Social Justice. Health Care. All are intertwined and releated, just like the community we live in.
However, I think more problems are being left out of the conversation; so since then, I have been trying to be more involved in my community and understand its needs and challenges.
On Monday, October 14 2019 – a day where Columbus Day is increasingly recognized as Indigenous Peoples Day – Familias Unidas del Chamizal showed that some neighborhoods and their population are being underrepresented and not prioritized. On this day they organized a march against what they say is institutional racism.
The march started at Beall Elementary, the school that was affected by the recent ‘Rightsizing for the Future’ initiative from El Paso School Independent District (EPISD) and it ended at Bowie High School.
Familias Unidas del Chamizal – neighbors and families from the Chamizal area – say their goals are working, educating, and bringing awareness of the current conditions that exist in terms of educational opportunities for immigrant and Mexican-American families; and to defend themselves from institutional and environmental racism.
Now, when people talk about contemporary terms such as environmental or institutional racism, it seems sort of strange for some of us. First, we must define each of them.
Environmental racism refers to low income and communities of color displaced to unhealthy zones and exposed to a number of hazards.
Whereas institutional racism – also defined as systematic racism – is the oppression perpetrated by societal structures that negatively affects minorities groups (communities of color, low income, etc.)
The Burleson and Beall Elementary parents’ committees, residents from Chamizal are asking for equitable funding allocated to their schools, and reopening these schools. The parents point to recent UTEP research that indicates the schools where their kids were relocated have “unhealthy environments.”
The parents also say that their children’s new campuses lack access to proper programs for their educational needs.
Douglass Elementary, where some of the relocated student now attend, is on the edge of an industrial zone; surrounded by two W Silver Recycling plants – one of which caught fire last June. While Zavala Elementary is next to the highway and construction on I10.
According to leaders of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, both these situations are jeopardizing the students’ future and well being.
Children from the Chamizal area, who attended the march were holding signs, chanting “we want justice now…up up with education, down down with contamination…educación si, contaminación no,” demanding justice and equal opportunities for their future.
While I was there standing in front of Beall Elementary there were a lot of conversations going on, some in English, Spanish, and some others in Spanglish, some parents sharing their experiences.
That’s when I approached, Susie Aquilina and I asked why she was protesting,
“Because I am a person whose child will be someday in El Paso Public Schools. I am privileged enough to live in a neighborhood where they never close schools… fellow El Pasoans do not enjoy that same right. I am here to support them,” she expressed.
I also talked to Josefina Lerma, a grandmother whose child was also impacted by the rightsizing, and closure of Beall Elementary.
“I want the District to reopen the school; first I worried about the buses, there has been reported incidents inside the bus where kids are fighting… my grandson’s grades went down when he was at Beall— his grades were excellent… I think the teachers are not prepared since they were used to have more students in their classrooms. It has been difficult to understand because no one told us why they closed this school.”
Officials with Familias Unidas del Chamizal maintain that have gone to the EPISD board meetings, and the board members have ignored their requests and disregarded them because some of these parents do not speak English, or when they ask for translations in Spanish of some documents they needed, these were not offered.
One parent, Hilda Villegas says her experience with EPISD’s board members during the meetings was dismissive and disrespectful.
Villegas contends that Board members did not let them express their concerns or even bother to understand the parents’ native language. Adding insult to injury, she says they were called protestors, even though they were raising their parental concerns to representatives.
“Opportunities are taken away because of lack of English proficiency, these families and schools are a few miles away from Mexico…most of them are either immigrants of Mexican descendants,” Villegas added.
After attending the march and protest, and listening to Hilda and the stories her fellow parents and supporters shared, I began to understand their anger and frustration.
Speaking a different language, having roots from another country and economic status should not be the reason for school closures and forced relocation to another campus.
The march and those involved helped me realize we live in a time where youth are more conscious about their rights, willingly getting out their comfort zone at a very young age to fight for equal opportunities, even before they reach middle school.
There are no good reasons not to provide quality education and healthy environmental conditions, not only for Barrio children, but for students across the district and around the country.