It all began with a reading of the “Communist Manifesto.”
The Polytechnic School students were sophomores two years ago, studying the 1848 political diatribe in their western civilization class and discussing the exploitation of workers.
When they were asked to make comparisons to modern-day experiences, some of the students chose to meet personally with migrant workers at the Pasadena Community Job Center.
“I really felt a light bulb go on in my head,” said Jessica Lopez, now a Polytechnic senior. “I wanted to make that local connection in my hometown.”
The group began meeting with day laborers at the center, which has been dedicated to matching skilled workers with employers and providing a safe, organized work environment to often-undocumented laborers for nearly 14 years.
The teenagers at first helped the workers with what comes most naturally — technology, of course — showing them how to hone their computer skills and better use Google maps and social media.
And the students listened. They asked questions. They heard stories.
Some of the immigrants had arrived on “La Bestia,” or the Beast, a harrowing network of cargo freight trains that is used by Central Americans to cross the length of Mexico into the U.S. Also called the “Death Train,” it is used illegally by passengers jumping on and off, suffering extreme weather conditions with no food or water.
One woman had to leave her three children behind to be able to find work and send money for food.
“It really popped my bubble. It was just so eye-opening,” said Nicole Larios, also now a senior. “You know, I had never thought about those life-and-death decisions people have to make. I thought to myself, ‘My biggest problem is what am I going to wear to school?’ and here is a woman wondering if her children will live another day.”
The Pasadena students were even more shocked to learn that once these travelers reach the U.S., for many, their troubles are just beginning.
“Some of these workers, they put in days of hard work and then get dropped off on the side of a mountain, without even getting paid, without knowing how to get back,” Lopez added, noting that one employer paid a worker with old, used clothing instead of the money that had been promised.
The stories were so moving, the girls said, that they organized a school assembly and invited some of the workers to come and speak, to share their experiences with 400 students. The workers also brought their “Los Jornaderos” music band, showing the students that even in the face of adversity, the migrant worker experience is also one of optimism, joy and love.
It brought the message home.
The students further organized, with about 100 teenagers going to the center, each one pairing up with a worker to help disperse a total of 10,000 pamphlets with information about the job center and the skilled, vetted workers available for hire. They hung the pamphlets on doors at businesses and residences to spread the word.
Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which is in charge of the work center, said the relationship the students have developed with the laborers is critical to the national dialogue.
“With kids being constantly bombarded with negative images and messages that immigrants are a threat to their community … when the kids make this very human connection, that negativity dissipates,” he said. “Injustice exists and it happens right in their neighborhoods. It’s good for young people to know this happens.”
Alvarado noted that the “human connection” they have made also offsets some of the current negativity the immigrants themselves are feeling in the U.S.
“When you’re a member of an oppressed community — in this hostile environment that has been receiving so much news — to know there is a segment of society that appreciates them, that admires the fruits of their labor and their humanity … it is a beautiful thing,” he said.
The job center also helps to foster community service among its workers, something the kids admire. The laborers will often forgo a day of employment to help clean streets and freeways.
Sofia Ceva, a 14-year-old freshman and one of the volunteers who paired up with a worker to help pass out pamphlets for the job center, said she has “felt really honored” to meet some of the laborers.
“I’m so happy to help explain to other people, that these guys are not here to commit crimes. They’re here to work hard and they’re good people,” she said.
Working with the laborers also has helped solidify the Latinos Unidos club at Polytechnic, of which Lopez and Larios are leaders. At first the task was daunting, they said.
“We’ve faced some adversity, for sure,” said Lopez, who hopes to possibly one day study heath care policy. “Getting kids to accept their culture and share it with others has really been such a challenge.”
The student and workers’ successful partnership makes one teacher glow, in particular. As the school’s community outreach coordinator, Renee Larios has become a fierce advocate for a service-learning curriculum, a kind of “academic mission” to improve the lives of others, as she explains it.
“It’s a methodology where students are inspired by a real community need, and how to connect world issues with community needs. In order to ‘meet the need,’ you have to learn how to write it, build it, share it,” she said.
In sharing the method, Larios believes in “walking the talk,” as she says.
Case in point: When the teacher picked up the phone on a school night recently, she was about five batches into baking 200 “big belly” brownies for a school bake sale fundraiser.
“This is a super chill evening for me … it doesn’t happen often,” said the 6th-grade English teacher, chuckling in earnest.
While she was instrumental in helping to make the connection with the job center, Larios credits the students for following through and creating friendships with the workers, with whom some of the students have shared meals and even played soccer.
“Getting to know the workers, the strength and resilience and optimism that they share, it really woke up this sense of kinship with our students,” she said. “You know, it really made them believe, ‘There are no enemies, only people with stories we have not yet heard.’”
One former Polytechnic student, Hunter Worland, said he is thrilled to hear how the school has further cemented the work center’s dynamic.
“It’s so great to hear that 8th-graders are going once a week to help out,” said Worland, now a sophomore at Harvard. He first began going to the center to practice his Spanish and help out with computer literacy. He had an “ah-ha” moment when he showed one woman, who hadn’t been home in years, how to see her small Columbian town on Google maps with the satellite street view.
“That was really touching … she saw her hometown and just suddenly got very teary-eyed.”
Those moments bring “humanization” to the immigration experience, Larios pointed out, which helps make the kids at Polytechnic better students and better people.
Alvarado said he is hopeful going forward. The center plans to begin a community garden, and many more projects, that can help bring the day laborers closer to the community and vice versa.
“This is a nation of immigrants … it brings that back to [the students]. Migrants represent the beating heart of this country. No one represents that survival or the American dream more than immigrants,” he said. “It’s courage and survival. I think the students recognize and admire that.”
It all began with a reading of the “Communist Manifesto.”