East Palo Alto Storytelling, Part 6

Jake Arky is the co-founder of So Say We All. At the time that this article was published, he is completing a playwriting residency with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley. The Young Playwrights Project involves writing new, original works for the stage and teaching performance/writing classes in local high schools.

Class 6:

Who is your hero? Better yet, who is your enemy?

Those were the questions that were posed to the class at East Palo Alto today. By far, the strangest and most memorable class so far in my residency. Today, I had no candy to offer, only the friendly support of one of the TheatreWorks administrative assistants from the education department and the choice of story topic each writer could focus on.

Having two people in the room helped to control the chaos and people were able to focus. “Who is your hero?” garnished a lot of responses: my mom, God, Lady Gaga, Spiderman, and one boy who wrote “I have no one to look up to.” When the class couldn’t come up with a hero to write about I asked about their enemies. This seemed to be a hot topic that no one wanted to touch on. Yeah, they had enemies. Hell no, they would not write about them. The student in awe of Spiderman said he hated his dad so much that he wouldn’t even so much as write the man’s name.

When it doubt, go right to the prompt. And this is where things got interesting…

Prompt #6 -- East Palo Alto bangers: heroes or enemies?

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.  — Christopher Reeves, Actor and Activist

A hero is no braver than an ordinary person, but a hero is braver five minutes longer. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Writer

All of the students but one seemed to have a reaction to this picture. Some called them “fags” and “wunnabes” while others were wondering which hood they were banging for. When I told them that these were EPA bangers (though I haven’t the slightest idea what gang they are associated with), everyone drew their own conclusions from there. So then the question became: were these heroes or were they enemies?

Before going to the examples, two things must be mentioned. One is that there were a pair of students who shared their work, one of them who has never spoken up in class before (yet always does the work) and her story floored everyone.** The second things involves the student in the class who wants to be a U.S. Marine. Every day he writes something so offensive and outrageous just to prove he’s got street cred. He likes to be provocative on the page and remain tight-lipped with everything else.

Most of the time I give him the benefit of the doubt, but today he wrote that Hitler was his hero. He admired Hitler’s ability to get rid of all the Jews and ended his story with a Star of David crossed out, accompanied by a large swastika. I went up to him and read the piece and said, “I’m Jewish…is this something you would say to me?” He smiled and turned to look around the class for support. There was none. “You ain’t Jewish, you’s a white boy.” “What do you think Jews look like?” “I dunno.” “Did you know there are black Jews, Asian Jews, even Mexican Jews — ?” “I ain’t Mexican, I’m Spanish.” “Great. So you know about the Spanish Inquisition then…?” He shook his head and started erasing, only to realize that the defiled Star of David was inked on the paper in pen.

We took the paper to Vice Principle’s office, where it just so happened that he was about to meet with this student’s mother for another reason. The woman only spoke Spanish and in my broken gringo tongue I tried my best to describe what her son did. The Vice Principle asked her in Spanish if she knew about hate crimes? No. Did she know about the man Adolph Hitler? Again, no. Did she know about the Nazis? World War II? Nada. The Vice Principle winced at my direction and said he’d take it from there. On the way out, my co-teacher and I realized that it wasn’t that he thought we were unable to communicate what was happening; it was that he was going to have to explain to this poor woman about the Holocaust and how her son was expressing support for genocide.

But for every negative, comes a positive. Here are some anonymous excepts from some of the work from this session at East Palo Alto:

My hero is gang affiliated. Because of that, people judge him and discriminate him. I don’t like it when people judge other people based on hate. I look up to this person. No one knows who he really is and he actually has a good, big heart. People say he’s violent, only he’s not. He can be. He is who he is, but I look up to him because he is smart, gives me advise, and is always there for me. — Response to Prompt #6

**My hero is my mom because she has done a lot of things for me and my sister. She gave up her work, career, and more. She also was going to give her life for us. I mean, she brought us to this country and she could’ve just waited for us here, but she didn’t, even though she had papers and she knew that if they caught us, immigration was going to take her papers away, but she didn’t care. She went for us and brought us but immigration caught us, but she explained why. The reason was because my dad was a judge and he put a gang of narcs in jail and in that gang was the chief. They told my dad to just let the chief go free, but he didn’t even though they were gonna pay him very good. Still, he didn’t and so then they decided to kill me and my sister, but my mom when she heard what was happening she went back to Nicaragua and brought us here. When immigration heard our story, they sent us to an immigration jail for Central American families, but was not like a jail jail. It was like a little city with rooms, a big cafeteria, and a big, big beautiful garden. Also, it was with schools and a doctor and also a dentist and a beauty salon…we won the case because we had the evidence and also, they believed us and they let us come to where we were going: San Francisco, California and then Palo Alto. But in that time, my mom never gave up and she was always with us. She was protecting us and giving us hope and love. If I have a hero, then it is her. And all I do is because of her. When I grow up and turn into a pediatrician I’ll give her back everything she did for me. And if I ever have kids, I’ll give the same example she showed us to my kids. She’s a good example and also she deserves to be called “mom.” — Response to Prompt #6