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Revelations for the Class of 2020

By Oscar de la Torre

Hello graduating Class of 2020. My name is Oscar de la Torre and it is my honor to join your high school teachers, staff and your families in congratulating you as you reach a major milestone in your education.

Even in the middle of a world-wide pandemic with protests calling for justice throughout our State and Country, we believe that it is important and necessary to celebrate you and your accomplishments.

Like many of you graduating today, my journey through the public education system wasn’t easy. I grew up in the racially segregated, lower income Pico Neighborhood in the City of Santa Monica.

Most people think Santa Monica is mostly rich and white and that’s mostly true, but south of the I-10 freeway exists a different reality. As a child, looking out my kitchen window I could see the wall that separated our street from the Woodlawn Cemetery.

On the opposite end of the block was the I-10 freeway so we were sandwiched between two neighborhood features that kept rent affordable but far from desirable. There were no white families living on my block.

Although we were materially poor, my childhood experience was rich in love, friendship and community. The benefit of overcrowded living conditions also ensured that there was always someone to play with.

I have fond memories of playing marbles in the dirt, spinning tops, making and shooting sling shots and playing ding dong ditch with a group of 15 to 20 kids around the same age. We played in the streets and our imagination and creativity allowed us to have fun with very little money.

I didn’t even know I was poor until I got to middle school. While in middle school I got caught up in the violence and drugs that plagued the neighborhood. I was suspended three times and was on the path of self hate and self destruction.

While in high school I lived with seven family members, sometimes more, in a two-bedroom apartment. My hard working parents, lacking an education beyond elementary school and speaking very little English, could not help me navigate the path to college.

At the time, my block was the official hang out spot for the local gang and I still bare the scars of the trauma from seeing childhood friends die on the street from gun violence.

At 16 I was a victim of police abuse and on two occasions gang members pulled guns on me just because I was Latino walking in the bad part of the City. I always thought it a big contradiction that the two groups I had to worry about in the neighborhood were gang members and police.

One of my childhood friends, a notorious gang member who was completing an 11 year sentence in federal prison, wrote me a letter once and stated that I was inches away from everything that caught him.

His comment caused me to reflect on the following question: What happened in my life that allowed me to overcome the social conditions that created chaos and death for so many others?

I can’t say it was one single thing because it was a combination of family, football and school that kept me away from gangs and drugs. But I also had a revelation that was life changing and I want to share it with you all as you contemplate your next step in life.

The revelation I had came is phases. Phase one I became aware of my social condition. I learned that we were segregated by class and race and I thank my white friends on the football team who invited me to their homes where I saw that the police in their neighborhoods asked: how are you doing? but in our neighborhood they always asked what are you doing?

I saw that their parent’s education led to higher paying jobs and with that came the income that allowed them to live in neighborhoods where gang violence was non existent. A higher income provided tutors, travel and summer camp experiences.

I saw the adage of knowledge is power in action when my friend's father left work early to bring us sandwiches, and I recalled my fathers stern warning against me ever getting into trouble at school because his boss would reprimand him and doc his paycheck if he left work early to deal with my issues.

One day after I returned from the paradise of privileges found in the North Side of my City, I entered phase two of my life changing revelation. I became angry but not the type of anger that clouds ones thinking.

I became mad at the fact that we lived in deplorable conditions. That poverty, social neglect and marginalization forced good kids to make bad choices not because we were born with malice but because we were born into a society that had lied to us.

We had been given a script that required us to play the role that rendered us inferior. Lacking knowledge of self, many took on false identities. Let us not forget that we are decedents of Kings and Queens of advanced civilizations.

That’s why moving forward we must ensure that Black and Brown students are taught their true history and culture so that Black Love and Brown Pride replaces the hate and division we sometimes see on our streets.

Most of you know of this consciousness that I am talking about or you wouldn’t be graduating. And this leads me to Phase three, the final stage of my revelation.

Once I became aware of my social condition and I was able to identify some of the reasons on why these conditions exist it struck a chord -– they say the truth will set you free but at first it will piss you off!

But anger is necessary for change. We are seeing examples of this all around us now. It takes anger and courage to stand up to power and I decided in my junior year of high school that I would work to change the social conditions that are causing many of us to self destruct.

I committed myself to my education seeing that it was a source for upward social mobility. I graduated from Santa Monica High as the school’s first Chicano student body president since 1948. I went on to Chico State University and graduated with honors and also as the University’s first Chicano student body president.

I completed my Masters Degree at UT Austin in Texas and came back to serve my neighborhood in Santa Monica. In 1998, I opened a youth center called the Pico Youth & Family Center and in 2002 I was elected to the SMMUSD Board of Education and I am currently the President of the California Latino School Board Association, advocating for equity and ethnic studies in public education throughout California.

I went from living in a two-bedroom apartment to now owning an apartment building in Santa Monica and my oldest son who is starting the 9th grade next year has identified Stanford University as his first choice after he graduates from high school.

I say all this, not to brag, but to tell you that no GPA or SAT score can measure your heart, resilience or intelligence. That you can come from poverty, gang and drug infested neighborhoods and even experience trauma that would derail most lives and still succeed.

I want to acknowledge and thank all of the educators and mentors in my life and in yours that believed in us for we recognize the power of love and encouragement as transformational.

Understand that each and every one of you, once you find your purpose, has the power to change yourselves and the world we live in.

Clearly your graduating class is being thrust into a world with multiple challenges but also with an opportunity to deliver on the struggle for justice started by generations past.

To the class of 2020 congratulations, you are the leaders we have been waiting for!

Oscar de la Torre is a member of the School Board, founder of the Pico Youth & Family Center and president of the California Latino School Board Association.


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