Noriega wrote that his mother took this idea to the next level, caring for troubled, wayward children. When one later died, she paid for his coffin, and then “La Mamá de East L.A.” started a nonprofit to buy coffins for other families that couldn’t afford proper burials for loved ones.
Brandon Winfield—a full-time student and laborer—would often hustle into class a few minutes late, just off work from laying underground wire. His term paper was an account of the culture shock his African American family endured when his mother, determined to keep her kids safe, shepherded her brood out of South-Central and into the San Gabriel Valley.
Former teacher Claudia Mercado took care of her parents, worked several jobs and commuted 30 miles to school in pursuit of her master’s. She wrote a poetry-infused tribute to a Northeast Los Angeles women’s activism and art collective—Mujeres de Maíz—where kindred spirits have connected through stories of personal struggle and cultural pride.
Gus Ugalde Jr.—my oldest student, in his 50s—told me how upset he was about the demolition of the 6th Street Bridge in February, because it held special memories of his youth in Boyle Heights. Then tell me a story, I told him. And he did, writing that in his memories, the days are long and never turn to night, and he is riding his bike across the bridge or crossing it on foot, holding his grandmother’s hand.
“I can still hear the sound of my corduroy pants rubbing against each other like that of clothes being scrubbed on an old-fashioned washboard. It was perpetual summer. I could still see grandma holding her parasol overhead to shield herself from the unyielding rays of the sun.”
I made it through the winter quarter and then spring, and now the fall semester. I have a lot to learn as a teacher, but I have a little more confidence now.
My students are writing, we’re talking, and we’re getting to know each other. Maybe I’ll teach them a thing or two, and maybe they’ll return the favor.
This is an updated version of a column first published by the Los Angeles Times.