Students in South Central L.A. say they don't see selves in media

'WE ARE NOT ANIMALS,' YOUNG PEOPLE SAY

April 16, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Adriana Tamayo wants you to know something about the people who live in her neighborhood, South Central:

"We are not animals."

After the riots that wracked several areas of Los Angeles, no place became more notorious than South Central, where some of the worst rioting began with the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny at the now infamous corner of Florence and Normandie.

But from the perspective of youth -- which is every community's hope for the future -- this is home. In spite of the plague of poverty, crime and gang violence, this neighborhood is the backdrop that will tinge memories -- fond or not -- of that roller-coaster ride of adolescence familiar to all races and classes.

Adriana and several of her classmates at John C. Fremont High School say they are proud of their community. They feel it gets a bad rap in the media and from fellow Angelenos. And they are tired of the stigma that comes from growing up in South Central.

"I don't have any problem with growing up in South Central," said Reyna de la Cruz, a senior and editor of the school newspaper, The Pathfinder.

"Everyone thinks if you live in South Central that you're a drug dealer or pregnant," says the self-confident and articulate Reyna, who grew increasingly agitated as she spoke, her voice rising in anger. "You never get any attention for anything positive in South Central."

In much of the media coverage of South Central, she said she does not recognize her neighborhood.

The adult drama of a metropolis coming to grips with its racial diversity is part of the everyday mix of jeans and T-shirts, mischief and scholarship flowing here through the Fremont halls.

The campus, located less than two miles east of what some have called "ground zero" of the uprising, is a sanctuary from a world that the students admit is pretty rough.

The ethnic makeup reflects the rapid changes in South Central: A decade ago, Fremont was 75 percent black; now it is 82 percent Latino.

Gangs -- black and Latino -- exist both in the neighborhood and in the school. But students say they represent a small fraction of the 2,800-member student body. And tensions between blacks and Latinos, which have plagued so many other South Central area high schools in recent years, are conspicuously absent at Fremont, both faculty and students agree.

Drive-by gang shootings are not uncommon, and some have occurred on the perimeter of the campus. But Principal John P. Haydel said that to his knowledge, there has never been a shooting on campus.

While emphasizing that South Central is not the hell hole that many make it to be, students are realistic about the tensions in their community as the federal jury continues its deliberations in the trial of the four police officer accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights by beating him.

The students are still dealing with feelings from last year's riots.

A drama teacher, Sidney Butler, wrote a play, "Can't You Hear Me Crying," based on students' experiences from the riot, which he hoped would act both as a tool of understanding and a catharsis.

For some the play, taped last night for a future NBC "48 Hours" program, proved too real.

One girl in the play screamed and ran out of rehearsal in tears after a scene in which a young man was shot. "She said her brother was killed the same way," Mr. Butler said.

Students saw the play last week at a mandatory assembly, despite the opposition of some faculty members. "There were rumors about the content, that it was incendiary," Mr. Butler said. He said student reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Many faculty were more cautious. "They said, 'I didn't agree with much of it.' But you couldn't argue with the reality of it."

Mr. Butler said he hoped to take the play to other schools in an attempt to broaden understanding of what happened in South Central and how it affected his students' lives.

One of the effects students said they felt is a frustration that no matter what happens after the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, even if there is peace, that they will always be associated with the violence and looting of last year.

"I'm going to be blamed for this for the rest of my life. I'm Latina, I'm a woman. They're going to ask, 'Were you a looter?' said Adriana.

And she doesn't expect it to end when she goes away to college next fall. "I'm going to Brown. Who knows what kind of questions I'm going to get?" said Adriana, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "abrasos" (Spanish for hugs) and "hugs."

Like many in the South Central community, some students say they resent the police buildup that is aimed at preventing another riot after the verdict is announced. During the past week, officers from the 77th Street Division, the police station just blocks from Fremont, have been cruising the neighborhood in convoys, four officers to a car.

Some, particularly the black, male students, say that they have been questioned and harassed by the police continually.

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