Arcelia Sencion: The Hope and the Drive

Arcelia Sencion’s immigrant parents set an example for their family of hard work and integrity, and she has always tried to uphold those values. At the time of this interview in 2001, Arcelia was Dunn Middle School’s inspirational Spanish teacher; she has since given birth to a second daughter and moved on to new endeavors.

“I was born in Los Angeles in 1970, but I have a lot of memories of going to visit Mexico. We made that trip every summer until I was about fifteen. And it wasn’t only my parents and immediate siblings, it was my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother–we would all pile into my dad’s orange station wagon and make this thirty-hour journey down to Mexico. I used to complain about it. We were crowded. We couldn’t move. When I talk to a lot of my friends now, it turns out they had similar experiences of going back to Mexico for the holidays and during the summer. But now, as an adult, I want to make that journey with my daughter. It’s important to me. My husband and I have driven to Mexico for the past five years. You get a different sense by driving, making that journey back, visiting all the towns and places.”

“My parents only speak Spanish, so Spanish is my first language, my native tongue. When I began school, it was only Spanish, and I was not immersed in English until the fourth grade. It was difficult. I remember my thought process was one thing, and being able to articulate was another. Also, it was hard because my parents didn’t speak English, and so they couldn’t help me with the difficulty I had in learning the English language. But I felt like I learned it quickly, and I was never really behind.”

“Today, I think there are more resources. My generation is making a conscious effort — we want our children to learn Spanish, we want that native tongue, but we know English as well. We can communicate with teachers, friends, and family, and have that support. When I was a child, I felt like I didn’t have that support at home, and my parents didn’t have that support from the teachers, so it made it difficult.”

“I was the oldest, so it was my responsibility to translate. I hated it. I hated it. Even now, when we go to the supermarket, my dad still wants me to write the check for him. I say, ‘Just write it in Spanish; the numbers are universal. It’s fine.’ He says no. So to this day, my brothers and sisters and I, whoever’s around, have to write his checks, and translate any mail correspondence. It’s not a big deal, but when I was younger, a part of me wondered, ‘My parents don’t know English. Why?’ I didn’t like it. ”

“Now I realize my parents are heroes. Yeah, my parents. They’ve worked hard all their lives, and they’ve created inspiration in my brothers and sisters and me, and that’s what keeps me motivated. My dad has been in this country since the late 1940’s, and he’s worked. Hard work. Physical work. He was a farm worker for many years, and then when he moved to the city, he worked in slaughterhouses. He was a butcher in the slaughterhouse, and it’s very risky and dangerous. Usually he’d get home around four or 4:30, but now and then I’d come home from school at 3:15 and see his car parked there, and I’d know there was something wrong — a cut on his hand, his face, something. So if I saw his car there early, it was not a very good feeling. Mostly, I have images of him coming home tired, dirty, sweaty, just sitting at the kitchen table, too weary to move. I ask myself, ‘Where did he get this drive? To continue working like this, day in, day out, for more than thirty years?’ I respect my parents greatly.”

“For many years, my parents did not contemplate becoming American citizens, but then there came a time when it seemed there was growing opposition to immigrants, expressed in ways such as Proposition 187. This prompted them to revisit their status in this country and their place in it, and to think about all they had contributed. It was so hard for them. They would have long talks with us and with their family in Mexico. They feared that they were abandoning Mexico, that they were betraying their place of birth. But they decided to become United States citizens. The day they became citizens was an inspiration to me. It was a very moving event to see them taking the oath. They still feel loyal to Mexico, but this is their home. This is where they have made their lives, and where their children were born, and so it felt right to them. And although sometimes they still feel that pain, they believe that they are contributing more as citizens. They are more involved in the political processes, and they are very aware in terms of candidates and issues. In many ways, they’ve always been involved, but they never recognized that they were activists in their own community. Now it feels legitimate to them.”

“It is amazing to me that with so few resources, my parents were able to give so much to their children. They believed in education. They wanted us to go to school, despite the fact that they didn’t really know what that meant or what that looked like, or what the struggles had been. They just wanted us to do well in school. They encouraged me to go to a four-year college, although there was a little clause in that: my dad did not want me to go away. He wanted me to go to school in L.A., and that has to do with his generation and culture. But I ventured two hours away, and that was a big step for me. My father is proud of me, of all of us. To him, as long as we finished school, he feels that he has done his job. That’s all that my parents have asked of us. And they supported us along the way.”

“The movie Stand and Deliver had a big impact on me. I was a senior in high school, and up on that screen I saw an image about my peers, about me. It made me really sad. It was like looking at a different perspective. I didn’t realize all the problems that existed, and how little support we had. I got a glimpse of racism. It was somewhat symbolic because that fall I would be going off to college, and I think it helped prepare me. I had been protected because I grew up in East L.A., where 95% of the community is Mexican. I never ventured out of those parameters. There was never a need to do that. I remember one teacher rented a bus for his economic students, and he took us to the Mann Chinese Theater, the Brea Tar Pits, Beverly Hills… we were all in awe! None of us had ever been to that part of town. My senior year was an eye opener to what I would face when I went off to college. So Stand and Deliver was an important movie to me – not just that it was about my high school, but it represents my first exposure to the differences and inequities that existed.”

“I went to UCSB. It was a culture shock. I was really having difficulties in an economics class, and when I went to ask for help, the professor said, ‘You all have a hard time in this class.’ You all. When he said that, I started crying, and I just left. I didn’t complete that course just because it was so difficult for me to see him. It was painful. And it seemed every now and then something like that would happen. It was just words. But that’s why I always talk to my students about the choice of words that we make, and how words can hurt. I could not take that class, so I couldn’t major in political science because I needed that course to fulfill my degree, and he was the only professor that taught that class. I could not sit down and see him. Even when I asked for help, I felt that it was not available for me, so I decided not to pursue that major. I couldn’t.”

“Different things that I saw at the university were painful. But I was able to channel that pain by becoming involved in El Congreso, a group that began in the 1970’s during the civil rights movement, but it was college-based. I was active in that group, and at the same time I became aware of my feminist views, and I was involved in an organization called M.U.J.E.R. (Mujeres Unidas en Equida y Revolucion). So I was able to channel that pain and anger in positive ways by becoming involved, speaking to high school students, going back to my community, speaking to family and friends, and encouraging them to pursue a four-year education. But I didn’t realize until this moment how much pain I still have from that. Just speaking about it…”

“I began teaching at Dunn Middle School only two years ago, but I used to work at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, and in many ways that was a teaching job, too – talking to women, providing resources, providing education. So it is very similar to teaching, which I enjoy very much. I first came to Dunn because Ben Wheeler (former director) called me and asked if I was interested in teaching there. I had stopped work at the rape crisis center and had no plans. Ben and I talked for a long time. I had not been a teacher before, but he really believed in me. He had faith in me. He must have seen something, and teaching really feels right. I’m fortunate because people have given me the opportunity to try something new that I had never done. I’m aware of that, and I’m thankful for it. I feel that you get to places by people opening doors, by people being there, and that has happened to me quite often. But you have to be willing to walk in. And I love it here. I love the students, the energy, everything that goes on. There’s a sense of community, and that’s important to me.”

“But I still call East L.A. my home. That will never change. I drive down there every two weeks. I haven’t been able to separate myself. I am thirty years old, and I have my home here, but that’s still home to me. East L.A. went through its periods. In the late 1980’s, when I went away to school, there was an increase in violence. I remember when I went home, I’d hear the choppers and see the lights reflected in my bedroom when I was trying to sleep. But just this past weekend, I told my sister, ‘I haven’t seen a helicopter in a long time.’ And she said, ‘No, there haven’t been.’ There’s not a lot of crime right now. Things are getting better.”

“My neighborhood feels the same to me. My parents live in the same place where I was raised. But there are a lot more people. When I was growing up, there were three houses filled with kids, and the rest were elderly couples. Now there’s a new generation of new families that have moved in. It’s lively, there’s music all the time. You see the street vendors, the taco trucks, the —people selling ice cream…you don’t have to go to the store because people are always cruising around. My daughter loves it. She hears the ice cream truck! ‘Mammy, yo quiero!’ And the food. Barbecues. There’s some food you can’t get here. There’s a lot of life and movement. Kids play in the street. It feels alive. It feels like there’s a beat to it. That feels like home to me. And it is home.”

“What gives me joy is my daughter. She will be three in March. I look at her and I feel that she’s in a very different place than I was in. I feel that even right now she’s bringing upon change, even in her own little school. I feel that is important. Right now her primary language at home is Spanish, but she’s learning English at school. It’s amazing. She’s able to connect who speaks what language, and she’ll switch to the right one. Sometimes she’ll ask, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ And if you say, ‘No,’ she’ll switch to her English. She’ll make that effort. She’s already starting to blend both languages, which is okay. Often you hear that children who know two languages are behind, and sometimes their language development is delayed, but I think she’s doing wonderfully. My daughter gives me that hope and that drive to continue.”

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