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The Lost Generation

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Jonathan Cruz's father died when he was five years old.  His mother died when he was 10. He shuttled between Puerto Rico and Philadelphia in his early teens, living with his grandmother. He dropped out of Kensington High to devote fulltime to a drug business that grossed $3,000 to $4,000 a week. At age 16, he had his own apartment, nice clothes, top-of-the-line sneakers, everything money could buy -- including the pound of marijuana he smoked each week.

Then he got caught by police.

"They found me with paraphernalia, marijuana, coke, dope," he said, with a shrug. "I was 18 so they charged me as an adult. I mean, they found me with it, so I pleaded guilty."

Cruz got lucky. He was given probation on the drug charges, but the week he spent in jail jolted him. Since then, he's got a girlfriend who has helped him get his life together. He took classes and got his GED. Today, at age 19, Cruz is living with his older sister in Hunting Park, looking for a job at a place like Home Depot.

He says his days on the street are over.

The saddest thing about Jonathan Cruz's life story is that it is not unique.  With slight variations, it could be repeated for thousands of young Latino males in Philadelphia -- except without the happy ending.

Much has been made of the high drop-out rate among Latino boys. In the Philadelphia School District, 51 percent of Latino males never graduate -- the number is even higher in some individual schools.  In a report issued last September, a district task force called these rates "alarming."

But, what happens after these young men drop out?

To answer that question, reporters from Metropolis and Al Dia, examined data, talked to educators and others who work with Latino youth, with a focus on young men between the ages of 18 and 24. We also talked to the young men themselves.

What emerges is the disturbing picture of a GeneraciĆ³n Perdida. A Lost Generation.

They are men like Felix Roman and Angel Quinones, Andre Romero and Geraldo Nieves, Angel Aviles and Luis E. Andujar. These six Philadelphians -- all aged between 18 and 24 -- share several things in common.  They will celebrate birthdays in the next 30 days. They are all serving time in state prison. Andujar, who will turn 22 on April 7, is serving a life sentence for murder.

Clearly, this is a generation in crisis.

Data compiled for this project shows that during one 12-month period 26 percent of all 18-24-year-old Latino males in Philadelphia were under control of the criminal justice system. They were either awaiting trial on criminal charges, serving time in city or state prison for criminal convictions, or on probation or parole. Another five percent were victims of violent crimes -- including 14 who were murder victims.

Add up the number of crime victims, suspects and those convicted of crimes and it comes to 3,600 of the 11,500 young Latino males between ages 18-24 in Philadelphia. (Click here for information on the sources of this data.)

Thumbnail image for LG_people-chart.jpgThis is a total for only one year -- 2009, the latest for which data was available. The numbers over a three- or four-year period would add up to an even larger proportion of young men.

There is also data to suggest that the number has increased in recent years, due mostly to a jump in the number of Latino males in this 18-24 age group -- up 40 percent since 2000.  (In Philadelphia, Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic/racial group.)

The high Latino drop-out rates and the high incidence of criminal activity may be growing problems, but they are not new ones.

Data from the mid-1990's put the drop-out rate (for males and females) at 56 percent at Edison High School, then as now a predominantly Latino school.  At Kensington High School, the rate was 66 percent.

Wilfredo Rojas, director of community outreach in the Philadelphia prison system, is old enough to have seen several generations of Latinos pass through the system.  He says it is a "common occurrence" to see fathers and later their sons as inmates.

"You have situations where you have fathers, sons and even grandchildren in here," Rojas said. "It is like a succession of negative behavior.  And, if you look at the drop-out rate, you will see where one of the parents was involved with criminal justice system."

What is happening to young Latino males today is part of a larger story about the Latino community in Philadelphia.

Latinos now make up 11 percent of the city's total population, and their numbers continue to grow -- up 31 percent in the last 10 years. The city now has about 170,000 Philadelphians of Hispanic origin; nearly 7 out of 10 are Puerto Rican.

A trip to the Bloque de Oro -- the Golden Block -- reveals the vibrancy of the community. This commercial district on North 5th Street, which unofficially begins at the corner of Fifth and Lehigh Avenue, has a hundred or more stores catering to Latino Philadelphians. With most of its signs in Spanish, with its brightly decorated murals and storefronts, with its large crowds of Latino shoppers, the Golden Block is the closest you can get to a trip to Latin America without leaving the country.

The blocks to the east and west of Fifth Street tell a different story. There is no vibrancy in the hollowed-out neighborhoods of Fairhill, Kensington and other sections of North Philadelphia where Latinos are concentrated.  The abandoned houses, the vacant lots, the shuttered corner stores are manifestations of the area's extreme poverty.

There are wealthy and middle class Latinos in Philadelphia, but not many. Only one out of 10 Latino households has income over $75,000 a year.

Most of the rest live close to or in poverty, sometimes abject poverty.  The average household income in Fairhill, for instance, is $12,204 a year -- three times lower than the citywide average ($37,045). Fairhill is 70 percent Latino.

By almost any measure, Latinos lag behind other Philadelphians. Nearly 40 percent live in poverty (compared to a citywide rate of 25%); 40 percent of Latino adults never graduated from high school (compared to 19% citywide); only 10 percent have college degrees (compared to 22% citywide.)

Many Latinos are isolated by poverty, language and geography, with 60 percent of them concentrated in just six neighborhoods: Fairhill, Juniata Park, Hunting Park, Kensington, Frankford and Olney.

Along with poverty comes a witch's brew of problems: broken families, poor health, dependence on drugs and alcohol and a sometimes violent street culture that offers the lure of big money -- if you are willing to sell drugs. As one Latino male who grew up in one of these neighborhoods put it: "Every male role model I had in my life was involved in something they were not supposed to be involved with."

Thumbnail image for Johnny irizarry B&W.jpgConsidering these factors, it should come as no surprise that the Latino drop-out rate is so high.

"Many times we blame the kids and we don't understand that these kids are living a reality we don't even imagine," said Johnny Irizarry, the member of the School Reform Commission who led the study on public school dropouts. "These students are literally living in a war camp. Extreme poverty, neglect, they don't have a father or perhaps he is in jail, a working mother who has no money to guarantee milk on the table everyday."

Edwin Desamour put is this way: "Kids go to school today with two huge bags on their backs.  One is filled with books.  The other is an invisible one, carrying problems."

Desamour fits the profile of many young Latino males: His father served time in jail; his mother worked two jobs to support the family; he got involved in street gangs and the drug business. He would have dropped out of Edison High School, but never got the chance. He was arrested at age 16 and charged with murder.

Desamour was convicted of third-degree murder, spent 8 1/2 years in prison, and was released to serve another 11 years on parole.  He is now 38 years old.

Prison changed Edwin Desamour.

"There would be times when I was in prison and I'd see this guy who was 70-something and I would say: 'I don't want to be that guy.' I've got a saying: Prison is a cemetery for the living."

After he got out of prison, he was in a barbershop one day when he overheard young men talking about men they called "The Legends." Then, he heard his name mentioned.  He was startled. Here he was a man who took the wrong path, ended up in prison for murder, and these young men looked up to his as a role model?

The incident prompted Desamour to gather up other ex-cons from the neighborhood and create an organization called Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC), which does outreach, mostly to young Latino males.

"I started looking up guys [who had served time in prison] because I knew they were doing something productive. And I told them: 'Those kids are following what we did. They look up to us. Our time didn't end in prison.  We need to give it back now."

The message of MIMIC, repeated in schools and in one-on-one session with youngsters is, "Mimic what we do now; don't mimic what we did," Desamour said.

Desamour was a boxer in prison and he still has beefy hands and a compact boxer's build. He is, alternately, passionate and reflective about his life.Edwin Desamour B&W 2.jpg

"When I look back, I still feel guilty for certain decisions that I made," he said. "But I also got to accept that I was a product of my environment. I'm not justifying anything, but really just trying to understand it."

Lucas Rivera grew up in the same neighborhood and his story is like Jonathan Cruz's and Edwin Desamour's and many other young Latino men. He was one of five children. His mother worked two jobs to support them. He went to Stetson Middle School and almost got kicked out. He went to Edison High School -- and almost got kicked out. He sold drugs and ran with the TBS street gang. It stands for Tioga Bomb Squad.

"We really don't have anything in this neighborhood," he said, referring to the areas that flow to the east and west of the Golden Block. "We never had an opportunity to become part of anything worthwhile, so we became part of the streets. And when you are part of the streets you are one of two things:  a 'Momma's Boy', so you are in the house doing nothing or you are in the street being a successful entrepreneur and building a rep for yourself as someone who is cool and hip."

Rivera may have been cool and hip, but he was still arrested by police for possession of bundles of crack cocaine he was selling.  He was 16 at the time.

Like Jonathan Cruz, he was lucky.  He got probation, too.

As he stood in court, his mother sat nearby, crying and visibly suffering. "It broke my heart," Rivera said. "I said 'I have to change.'"

He returned to Edison, but more importantly he found a dance school affiliated with Taller Puertorriqueno, the Latino arts group in Kensington.  Dance became his passion.

"I had a vision and I knew exactly what to do," Rivera recalled. "I came across this amazing organization and the tables changed.  My life changed.  My dedication was about art. I took some classes at Community College, but never finished, then I went to Temple and was a dance major.  I got my masters at Temple. And here I am, the kid from the corner."

That "here" is  Esperanza Academy, a charter high school on the 300-block of West Hunting Park Ave., where Rivera is director of arts.  At 32, he still has a dancer's body - though a back injury left him hobbled and walking with a cane in a recent interview.

Rivera has spent most of his adult life in the charter school movement and is a believer in charters to help children.

Another believer is Alfredo Calderon, the executive director of Aspira, the Latino agency headquartered on the 4500-block of North Fifth Street that currently runs three charter schools.

Calderon and Rivera both used different words to say the same thing.  They believe they are on a mission to save the next generation of young Latinos. They believe the path to that salvation is education. They also believe the public school system is incapable of delivering the education these children need.

"The majority of the students who graduate from district schools can barely read or write," said Calderon. "Once they graduate high school, they can't go to college, so the prospects of getting a job are slim. And thus they fall into that category of $23,000 median income. They must sruggle to make ends meet."

Lucas Rivera B&W2.jpgLast year, Aspira was invited by the district to take over operations at Stetson Middle School, the majority Latino school at B and Allegheny Streets, that in terms of academic and discipline was one of the worst in the city. Generations of Latino youth had gone through Stetson, many of them on their way to dropping out.

Aspira had inherited all the students who attended Stetson while it was a public school, so Calderon and his associates knew they had to change a culture that included poor academic performance, frequent suspensions and a series of violent incidents inside its walls.  They adopted what Calderon described as a strategy of "shock and awe."

"Even in our community we have Latinos who don't believe Latinos have what it takes to succeed, said Calderon. "We wanted to prove them wrong. At Stetson, we have the same kids, same community, same building, but different expectations -- much higher expectations for the school, the administrators, the teaching staff and the students."

When the school re-opened in September, students were greeted with new demands: a requirement to wear uniforms, rigid discipline, more teachers, lower class size, a longer school day --and high expectations for performance.

"The first two weeks they didn't know how to react," Calderon said. "They just complied with everything and it was strict. It's very militaristic. Now it's a bit more relaxed but there's discipline."

On a recent Friday at Stetson, the school's 670 students filed into the school's large auditorium for what was officially billed as a school assembly, but was really more of a pep rally. The next week, the students were due to take the PSSAs, the state's standardized academic assessment test.  The year before, three out of four students at Stetson performed at basic level or below on the test. These were dismal scores.

It would be an important moment in the school's life.  Would the arrival of Aspira, its switch to being a charter school, all the changes made in the last year yield improved test scores? Would it validate the experiment to turn Stetson into a charter school?

In the large auditorium, buzzing with conversation, Principal Renata Lajara raised his hand to signal silence. All other hands in the room shot up, too. Silence arrived quickly.You have worked hard all year, Lajara said, and "Today I want you to look in the mirror and tell yourself: 'I can do this.'"

Then began a series of 'shout outs' where teachers shouted out the names of students who deserved praise -- for coming to school on time, for working hard to master math, for being kind to fellow classmates. About 40 students also lined up in the front of the room to to step up to a microphone and do their own shout outs -- to their classmates, to their teachers, to Lajara.

A screen was lowered and a movie trailer, made by a teacher with some students, was played.  It showed a student training -- ala Rocky -- running, doing squats, working out, accompanied by triumphal music. This was a champion in the making.

At the end, in big letters on the screen, came the message "Knock Out the PSSAs."

The movie fired up the students, who cheered and applauded and then quickly filed out of the auditorium to go to their classrooms.  Among them, Lajara said, were about 100 eighth-grade boys. A new generation of Latino males, headed to whatever their future might be.

 

Tomorrow: Profiles of three Latino males in their late teens and early 20s working and living in Philadelphia. 

 

 

This story is a joint project of Metropolis and Al Dia, Philadelphia's Spanish-language weekly newspaper.  It was researched and written by Metropolis Senior Editor Tom Ferrick and reported by freelance reporter Gustavo Martinez and Ana Gamboa, a staff writer for Al Dia. Photos are by David Cruz of Al Dia. This project was made possible by a grant from J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, funded by the William Penn Foundation, as part of the Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative program. 

 

Cover Photo: Detail from a wall mural on the Golden Block.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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