The daily drag of going to school was not much of an issue for Romeo Rodriguez
Like many of his friends, he tried to learn something when possible while avoiding tensions with other kids at
Like many of his friends, he noticed how teachers paid attention to the "smart" kids and left the others behind.
"Little by little, I started seeing the Latino rate dropping at Frankford. My friends were dropping out," he said. "Some were pushed out because they didn't see the use of being at school."
By the end of his sophomore year, Rodriguez knew that keeping it cool and quiet were ways to avoid problems. Still, unrest at the school would usually take over him because school violence was something he couldn't control.
"I'm not the kind of person who gets involved in that," he said. "But just me walking down the aisle as a Latino person made me look like an enemy to somebody else at school."
"At the end of my 11th year is when I decided to drop out," Rodriguez said. "I had to make the strong decision to not go to school and to go out and work full time to be able to provide for my kid."
Rodriguez also opted for letting the mother of his child continue with her studies.
"Now she is in college courses. I'm proud of her," he said.
But seeing her continue while he was a young dad with no high school diploma bothered him and his family. One day his grandmother told him she had heard about an alternative school where he could get his diploma. It piqued his interest.
"I decided I had to go back because I realized that if I wanted the best for my kid I needed to continue with my education," he said. "And also to show my kid that I went to school, even though it was hard at times, but I did what I had to do."
He is now enrolled at El Centro de Estudiantes, an alternative middle-high school in the Kensington section of
"It was very shocking coming to a place like El Centro because I was so used to having a lot of kids in one class and teachers that were miserable about seeing so many kids" he said. "And that doesn't happen at
In a more comfortable setting, Rodriguez has even found time to become an activist to improve public education in
"Calling someone a drop-out is like pointing the finger at that person," he said. "We consider instead calling them pushed-outs because there are other things that can drive the kids out of school. It could be because the teachers don't care, because they don't feel safe, or because the kids may have personal reasons to do it."
Rodriguez expects to finish high school at
Jonathan Cruz was already a successful businessman at the age of 16.
He had a flourishing distribution business and the organization skills to manage several employees and move merchandise. Without even graduating from high school, he was already earning around $4,000 a week and was an independent teen living in his own apartment.
Everything was going great for him. Until he was arrested for drug selling.
"They found me with paraphernalia, marijuana, coke, dope (heroine)," he recalled. "I was 18 so they charged me as an adult, I mean they found me with it, so...I pleaded guilty.
Cruz was imprisoned for a week before his trail, where he was found guilty. Luckily, he avoided jail. He was sentenced to three years of probation. He is now 19 and trying to get his life back in order.
Cruz is a Puerto Rican American who was born and raised in Philadelphia and grew up in Kensington, along with three older brothers and his older sister.
"My parents passed away when I was younger. My father when I was five years and my mother when I was ten. My sister wanted to carry me but my grandmother didn't allow it".
He moved to
"I didn't care about school at that time; my grandmother used to be on me, telling me that I should finish. But then I came back to Philly to lived with my sister and I started 10th grade at William Penn [High School]" said Cruz.
The experience was uncomfortable and awkward for the 14 year old, because he was the only Puerto Rican in a class of African-American students. Still, he managed to get by in his classes without problems, due partly to a gentle, laid-back style that was evident during an interview. Tall and lanky, with a baby face, Cruz is soft-spoken and pleasant..
Cruz was ready to drop out from William Penn, so he transferred to Kensington Culinary Arts High School, a majority Latino school. By then he was already selling drugs and had moved out of his sister's home to his own apartment. His desire to go to school faded.
"I started doing whatever I wanted, started selling what I was smoking and it kept me stable," he said. "That's all I needed, myself, because otherwise nobody would do it for me. That's basically why I dropped out."
The way he tells it, Cruz did not so much drop out, as drift out. He did not dislike school, and at first he just started skipping class. Soon, he was showing up just once a week. Then not at all.
He wanted to focus in his business, where $2,000 invested in buying drugs could be doubled in a week. He liked what money could buy.
"In a nice area you got your family to support you, but once you live in an urban community, you want clothes, you want money, you want food," Cruz said. "You got to be on the street, That's the way you got to do it. School isn't an option if you are on the streets."
Cruz had lots of money, his own apartment and was smoking about a pound of marijuana a week. He even had other young men working for him selling drugs.
But, his arrest -- and the week he spent in prison -- jolted him. He set his mind never to go behind bars again. He was advised by his girlfriend's father that he could finish high school in the alternative program of Community Education Resource Network (C.E.R.N) in Camden.
He just got his high school diploma and is looking for a job. he also hopes to go to college someday. though he hasn't decided in what field.
Was it easy to get out of the streets?
"My [friends] are amazed. They are like 'dang, you stop all your stuff'!' They tell me they wished they could do it, but they can't. Some people just don't have no options. You got to do things by yourself
The walls of his shop are covered with stylistic sketches that are as detailed as the tattoos on his arms. At 23, Christian Avendano has no regrets because he dropped out of high school and spends his time doing what he likes most: cooking and tattooing. He sits puffing from a cigarette and narrates how he had to negotiate --or, rather, cajoled-- his mother when he felt he couldn't take school any more.
"I spent the whole summer thinking about it. I just didn't like what I was being taught. I knew those weren't skills I would need," he said. "I told my mom that if she didn't take me out of school I would do something stupid to get kicked out and it'd be more trouble."
His mother gave in despite his father's disapproval.
"They're not bad parents for doing that," Avendano said." My mom understood first what I wanted to do with my life and my dad was a bit tougher to convince."
The son of Argentine immigrants, Avendano recalls growing up in
But he didn't want to follow that route. Instead, he started thinking of leaving school and gets real-life experience working where he wanted to make a living: in restaurants and tattoo studios.
"I see my brothers struggling to get a job years after they went to college," he said. "I knew I didn't have to waste my time learning things that were not going to be useful in my life."
At age 13, he started working at restaurants and, coincidentally, it was the same time in which he realized his call was tattooing.
"I always noticed the guys in the basketball court. I liked their tattoos and that's why I got one," he said. "After that, I knew I wanted to be a tattoo artist, something for which there is no college degree."
Avendano recalled that he didn't encounter many of the problems inner-city Latinos face in school. He attended school in
"There was no violence or such things. The only problem there was overcrowded classes," he said. "You would have 40 kids in one room and just one teacher to teach and help a bunch of teenagers."
Three months into his senior year, Avendano talked his mom into signing him out of school and started officially tattooing.
"At that point I had already saved enough money to buy my first equipment to start tattooing. I felt like an entrepreneur and not like a drop-out," he said. "I have even studied techniques, hygiene and the history of tattoos."
Since he is an independent artist, away from the mainstream of tattoo shops, his business tends to run into slumps.
"That's why I have my cooking gig. I work for a gastro pub and that allows me to be creative in other ways and also make good money," he said.
He currently works at a trendy bar in Center City Philadelphia where, according to him, no one cares whether he finished school or not.
"In that industry it is all about can do the job or not," he said.
Avendano, who claims to have never taken an art class in his life, confidently assures that he has "inked" closed to a 1,000 people, including his family.
"I've done work on my brothers but it really feels great when you do something on your parents. My mom has two of my tattoos and my dad is already thinking on his second one," he said.
Gustavo Martinez is a freelance reporter, translator and photographer who lives in South Philadelphia. Ana Gamboa is a reporter for Al Dia, the Spanish-language weekly newspapers based in Philadelphia. Photos by Daviz Cruz of Al Dia.
Cover Photo: Detail of Latino mural at Fairhill Elementary School, 6th and Somerset Sts.