Hispanics are part of `in' crowd at Ga. school

Teens leave shadows in small town and find social acceptance

December 31, 2006|By New York Times News Service

PEARSON, Ga. -- The buzzer blares, and the students pour into the hallways - bubble gum snapping, locker doors slamming - as the young man of the moment saunters through the admiring crowd at Atkinson County High School.

He is thin and wiry with a whisper of a mustache and a taste for enormous, Hollywood-style sunglasses. Like most popular boys, he receives flurries of party invitations and whispered confidences from pretty girls.

Like other students, he juggles homework and dreams of becoming a singer. In fact, in this tiny town, the most remarkable thing about him is his name, Frankie Ruiz.

In October, Frankie and a classmate, Kristen Galarza, made local history when they were named homecoming king and queen, the first time Hispanics won both titles in the same year.

The coronation stirred astonishment, jubilation and some outrage in this Southern town, which is being transformed by Hispanic migration and is still struggling to adapt to its evolving ethnic identity.

While Hispanics account for more than 20 percent of the population here, they still live mostly on the margins of society, largely invisible in local politics and the upper echelons of business.

But in the bustling classrooms of Atkinson High, Hispanic teenagers are slowly but steadily integrating into student life. The transition is sometimes awkward and painful, but young people here are casually challenging the traditional social hierarchy in ways once unimaginable.

As Hispanic migrant and factory workers, Frankie's relatives have long been considered outsiders. But Frankie, the American-born son of a Mexican father and a Puerto Rican mother, is the ultimate insider at Atkinson High.

"Everyone knows me," said Frankie, 17, an affable joker who transitions easily between English and Spanish. "I live in both worlds."

Atkinson High which opened in 1955, barred blacks until 1970. In 1994, it was only 4 percent Hispanic, state statistics show, while now the population of 514 students is 50 percent white, 26 percent Hispanic and 22 percent black.

Faculty members at Atkinson High, which is led by Principal Paul Daniel, marvel at the changes.

"I've never taught at a school where Hispanics were on the football team or the cheerleading squad," said Edwin Collins, a Spanish teacher.

There is Jose Rodriguez, a linebacker and a captain of the football team, who helped his fellow players reach the playoffs in November. Leon Martinez and Azucena Ponce are among the growing number of Hispanic students on the honor roll.

Frankie, who prides himself on his glittering diamond earrings and pristine white Nikes, dates black, white and Hispanic girls. He says his dating has raised eyebrows, but not tensions.

Frankie was born in Georgia, in neighboring Coffee County, and has attended public schools with their mix of black, white and Hispanic students for most of his life. He cannot imagine restricting himself to one group of friends.

So in earth science class recently, he joshed with black classmates, who teased that he was stealing his sense of style from them. (His haircut that day included two stars etched on one side of his head.)

Minutes later, he was in the hallway, comforting a white friend upset with a teacher and grinning for photos with Hispanic friends.

Zack Harper, a white senior, said more teenagers were socializing regardless of race or ethnicity. "Everyone talks and mingles here," said Zack, who has invited Frankie to his house and has visited Frankie's home.

But the increased presence of Hispanic students has not come without tension. Several Hispanic teenagers have been suspended for involvement in gang activity, school officials say.

Some students still offend their Hispanic classmates with hostile remarks.

In response, some Hispanic teenagers retreat into the comfort of ethnic solidarity. Other students do the same. In the cafeteria, Hispanics, blacks and whites still sit mostly in separate groups as they huddle over trays of steak nuggets and canned peaches.

And while some cheered Frankie and Kristen's homecoming victory, others feared it signaled that Mexican immigrants were beginning to dominate town life.

"Everybody in school likes them, so some people were happy," said Brittany Young, a white junior, describing the reactions of white residents to the homecoming vote.

"But others were just like, `Oh my God, no, they didn't just win,'" she said.

Brittany said some worried there might not be another white homecoming king and queen at Atkinson High, given the growing number of Hispanic students.

At times, Frankie cannot help but feel the distance between his life and those of his friends, even as they all cheer the football team and flit back and forth from one another's homes.

Most of his white friends have parents with college degrees and big houses. Frankie lives in a mobile home with two sisters and his mother, who never completed high school.

He tries to meld both worlds, but that can prove awkward. And he said he occasionally feels out of place when he is the lone Hispanic in the crowd.

So he keeps all of his friends close, but his Hispanic friends closer.

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