Park City’s Hispanic students find a voice with Latinos in Action
At the beginning of the school year, Nayely Velazquez sat down with Anna Williams, Park City High School’s Latinos in Action adviser, and spilled her emotions.
Velazquez, a junior at PCHS, told Williams that she wanted to be a leader in the school’s Hispanic community but she was afraid people would judge her for her past. Williams told her not to pay attention to anyone who did. Then she laid out a series of goals she wanted Velazquez to reach by the end of the year.
In the beginning, Velazquez doubted that she would be able to attain them. But she soon began clearing the hurdles, and as she did, Williams’s expectations grew. She met those, too. Now, Velazquez is just one of several students at PCHS who say their involvement in the Latinos in Action program, and with Williams, has changed their lives. Williams was recently named the Latinos in Action Teacher of the Year at the state conference at the University of Utah.
"To know that (Williams) has seen it in me from the start shows me I’ve been that this whole time," said Velazquez, adding that she has become stronger, more independent and more vocal. "I just needed to grow into that person. I think that’s the case with a lot of people."
Williams was not the only one honored at the conference. Work from Naomi Vazquez was named the most creative art piece in an art competition, while Lesley Ruiz won third place in a writing competition. Velazquez earned an honorable mention for her writing. But even students who didn’t place in an event at the state competition say participating in LIA is one of the best experiences of their high school careers.
Many enter without a voice, but they leave confident and eager to pursue their dreams. Another such student is Enrique Sanchez, a senior who said many Latino students go into high school believing they are not capable of achieving good grades and gaining acceptance into college.
Slowly but surely, that point of view begins to change.
"LIA puts us out there," he said. "It kind of takes us out of the shadows, because normally us as the minority, we’re hidden in the shadows and it’s kind of difficult for us to bring ourselves out. What this class does is shine a spotlight on us and let us shine in the eyes of others as well."
Velazquez added that LIA helps students focus on the issues that are affecting Hispanic students. She said those topics aren’t often discussed in other classes because Hispanic students make up just a relatively small chunk of the overall population in the Park City School District.
"We’re not the dominant race, we’re not the dominant culture, we don’t speak the dominant language," she said. "So it gets really difficult. But you put us in a leadership class, and it gives us a way to better our own community and get ourselves more involved and pave the way for the students coming in. Everyone coming in is going to have a better chance to have opportunities."
As the end of school nears, Williams has begun to reflect on the students she has taught this year. She said it’s students like Velazquez and Sanchez and sophomore Angel Lopez who make her job rewarding and give her hope for the future.
She deflects praise for the work she does, instead crediting the passion of the students. She said Lopez is the perfect example of how LIA can help students flourish if they learn to believe in themselves.
"I remember him in August and September, and he was really shy and tentative and hadn’t found his voice yet," Williams said. "And now, he’s very opinionated, passionate and vocal about social justice. My job is to harness that and nurture it, so it develops so that by the time he’s a senior, he’s going to be holding all sorts of positions of power and thinking about things like how we can utilize those skills in college."
Lopez hopes to pass what he has learned on to the next generation of students who will one day enter PCHS. LIA students work with elementary school kids, and he said that’s been his favorite experience so far. He hopes to show them that they, too, can succeed. As someone who didn’t have a Hispanic teacher until seventh grade, but whose life has changed in LIA, he knows how important role models can be.
"I think it’s great because you get to see the students grow throughout the whole year, and you know you’re part of the reason they grew," he said. "They had someone who was actually interested in helping them and being a role model. Having someone you can look up to helps you, especially if you don’t think you can make it. It’s like, ‘If they made it, I can make it.’"
The arsenic-and-lead-containing soil has been a contentious issue for the district, which piled it onto the junior high campus in actions that were later discovered to be in violation of a covenant with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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