(G. Arizon/SFVS) Teacher Fernando Lopez and some of his students at the Cesar Chavez Learning Academies pose with the book “We Are America.”

Students in Fernando Lopez’ Ethnic Studies high school class are now published authors.

Joining selected schools across the country, students from San Fernando High School and, most recently at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy at the César Chávez Learning Academies are part of the “We Are America Project Collection” — a book that not only contains their personal experiences and stories but hopes to spark a new conversation about what it is to be American.

The project, spearheaded by Lowell, MA high school teacher Jessica Lander, began with the question, “What does it mean to be an American?”

Lander points out that the definition of who is an American is often “contentious,” and today, is far “different than what it meant 100 years ago or 100 years before that.”

History, Lander said, is more than the actions of nations or societal trends, “it’s personal.”

G. Arizon/SFVS
Students in Fernando Lopez’ class at Chávez express a variety of thoughts and feelings in a new edition of the book, “We Are America.”

“It’s a tapestry of people,” she explains. “It’s shaped by our families and traditions — molded by laws and social movements, forged by injustice and inequality — affected by what we believe, who we love, what we look like and where we come from.”

Lander grew the project from her own classroom into other classrooms across the country. With the support of three national nonprofit organizations, and the help of her former students, she outreached to teachers in other states online.

Lopez, who was teaching Honors US History at San Fernando High School Magnet at the time, was searching for opportunities for his students when he came across the project and applied through a Google app.

To his surprise, he was accepted, and the stories of 27 of his students who were distance learning attending his class online during the height of the pandemic were written and published. In short but powerful stories, his students provided a window into the challenges of their young lives.

Lopez who now teaches Ethnic Studies at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy at Chávez, continued the project, and recently the stories of 70 additional students have been published in a second edition of the book.

The stories in both editions are compelling and honest — oftentimes beyond their years. Both in English and Spanish, some of his students wrote about losing family members to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“I think of everything that’s been going on the last couple of years, a lot of them really focused on the trauma that they’ve experienced in their lives. So I think it was really at the surface, it was really raw, and I think it was easier for them to just get it off their chests” Lopez said.

Merary Flores wrote about the morning of her father’s passing in a story titled, “Blossoming.”

“It took me many months after his passing to accept that he wasn’t here anymore…Looking back, every kind and gentle act my Dad did was to prepare me for what was to come…”

Lopez said his ninth-grade students have spent their middle school years online.“I think we’re at an intersection where everything just kind of met. We were obviously coming off of distance learning. We were coming off of a lot of them experiencing loss in their families, and could share what they were going through,” he said. 

Jiselle Perez described her struggle with depression in a story titled, “A Social Blackout.” She wrote:“From the outside, it was easy to assume that my energy was an indicator of my well- being or mood, but my glistening outer shell hid the reality that lied within me.”

Lopez said that some of his student’s stories were love letters to the community while others were a harsh reflection of the community.

In a story titled “Mission City,” Nicholas Flores wrote about the beauty of the surroundings he grew up with. “I can hear the echo of hip hop playing in the distance, the kids playing and the hydraulics of the lowriders passing by … my grandparents playing a song in Spanish on the record player … My love for art wasn’t the type of art you would see in museums. These art exhibits were public, painted on the walls of the neighborhood — street graffiti, I grew up with free art shows all around me.”

In a story titled “White Privilege Exits and It’s All Around Us,” Sherlyn Salayes wrote of the racism that her parents experienced in the small business that they built.

“Light skin camouflages her true identity and shields me from the hatred often directed at my parents… I have heard people tell my parents to go back to their country or accuse them of stealing people’s jobs… my parents left their homeland, risked their lives to get here and created a life here. It is disappointing to hear people tell them that they don’t deserve what they have and they are criminals and drug traffickers.”

Redefining the Northeast Valley

 “Oftentimes when we talk about students from our community here, people highlight the numbers — the failing schools or everything else [that’s] the negative,” Lopez said. “But they often fail to highlight the life that is going on behind those numbers and the achievements behind those numbers.

“Yes, we might be from Pacoima, San Fernando, Sylmar, but we are accomplishing things.”

Lopez shared that he is also from the local area.

“We are redefining what it means to be from the Northeast San Fernando Valley,” he said. “And you know, as a community, we are working towards something better.

“I think their stories highlight that — even if they’ve gone through loss or they’ve gone through tough times — they’ve persevered. And they continue to etch a little piece of, you know, the space in history that they’re taking up.”

In Turn, What the Students Teach

“I think oftentimes we look to the adults to find relativity because they’ve gone through life and they have more years on earth. But I think these young people taught us that age, as many say, is just a number. It’s a matter of circumstance,” Lopez said.

“ A lot of them, even at a young age, have experienced things like the joyous moments or these horrible moments of loss. And I think we all have something to learn about life, whether it’s how they’ve moved on or how they’re processing; but it’s all about what it means to be a community. Because I think during the pandemic we obviously lost a lot of us.”

“I think the human connection was missing for a while,” he continued. “And I think this allowed them to really get things off of their chests that they’ve been carrying with them that I think otherwise, if we were in the classroom, any of them would have been able to share out or at least process sooner.

“I think because a lot of this baggage that they were carrying was just kind of bottling up … It was almost like a moment of catharsis. The writing allowed them to really start processing what they had gone through in life.”

“And I think that’s been the focus of my class. ‘Let’s tackle the difficult in a way that’s accessible.’ But at the same time, I tell them, ‘We don’t do basic. We are beyond mediocrity. We expect significantly more of ourselves.’”

Lopez said he’s forever grateful to the algorithms that led him to this opportunity for his students.

“They walk around with a different sense of accomplishment. They ask their teachers if they’ve read their stories. They are showing that although they’re still young, they’re developing that confidence that is needed to tackle some of these bigger moments in their lives. They see that their voice matters.”

To purchase a copy of the book, you may contact Fernando Lopez at the César E. Chávez Learning Academies at (818) 838-3946. To learn more about the “We Are America Project,” and to here recordings of stories in the book told by the authors alongside other stories of young people across the nation, go to: www.weareamericaproject.com.