Sparta — Some Hispanic students at Sparta High School were feeling underrepresented and isolated. So they made history by forming the district’s first-ever Latinx Student Union.
The LSU launched this year to broaden understanding of Hispanic culture through and give Spanish-speaking learners a safe place to feel seen and heard. The group has hosted family engagement events and film screenings, and decorated the school walls with Spirit Week piñatas and Día de los Muertos displays.
“We realized that there wasn’t that much representation for the Hispanic and Mexican communities, so we decided to form it to make us feel more comfortable, and to represent ourselves a little more,” said sophomore Anyeli Caballero. “The most rewarding thing is just knowing that we’re represented in this school.”
Just a few months into its inaugural year, the LSU is gaining traction with around 20 members, including students of Mexican, Nicaraguan and Honduran descent. Together they’re planning and implementing activities to foster unity between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students, and to cast a light on a population that “really exists here, but is kind of quiet, kind of unseen,” said Leah Metivier-Kearney, group adviser and English language instructor.
‘I just hope that our culture is appreciated by everyone.’— Sparta High junior Glendy Ramos
The idea for the group stemmed from conversations Metivier-Kearney had with students last year, when she was just starting out in her position.
“They opened up about how separate they feel from the rest of the Sparta community — how isolating that was,” she said.
Once she’d developed a rapport with students she asked them to think of some solutions.
“They said, ‘We should be doing things that are for our people.’”
So they got to work, and the effects are already apparent: A recent Spanish-language screening of the movie “Coco” drew hundreds to the high-school auditorium, demonstrating an eagerness on behalf of the general student population to learn more about Hispanic culture.
Bonding is taking place within the group as well, to the delight of senior Xochitl Martinez.
Xochitl joined the LSU partly because she noticed she was spending less time with Spanish-speaking friends after testing out of her English language proficiency class.
“When I left, I didn’t really hang out with any Hispanic kids as much,” Xochitl said. “It was just always me, by myself. I always felt alone because I didn’t have any friends that could relate to how I think or how my morals are.”
Now she’s meeting new people, making new connections and feeling more at home, all thanks to the LSU.
“I like that we get to be more ourselves, and I get to talk to more people in Spanish,” Xochitl said. “I never really get to do that much, and it makes me feel safer.”
‘A Better Understanding’
When she was younger, Xochitl said, she was bullied and labeled a “slow learner,” because she sometimes struggled learning two languages at once. When she got the help she needed, she excelled, and now she’s enrolled in multiple advanced classes.
Xochitl wants to use her experience as a springboard to advocate for others who might be in the same situation.
“I hope to accomplish a better understanding of things,” she said. “I think it’s good for people to know that … we’re capable of doing whatever it is we want, whatever we put our minds to.”
Xochitl hopes the LSU extends to Sparta’s elementary and middle schools as well, to help make sure younger Spanish speakers are included.
She plans to pursue a career as a medical translator after graduation so she can continue to help people overcome language and culture barriers.
‘More present in school culture’
The group’s most recent activity was the “Coco” screening, which aligned with Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
To mark the occasion, members put together ofrenda displays to honor deceased family members and friends.
“It’s essentially an altar, which very traditional Hispanic families will put out the week of Halloween and the week of All Saints’ Day,” Metivier-Kearney said. “They do photos of their loved ones, food, favorite mementos of the person that died — all of these different pieces that commemorate their loved one.”
The idea is to capture the essence of the deceased, so “their spirits can come back and enjoy the festivities as well,” Xochitl said.
It’s truly a joyful occasion, junior Glendy Ramos said.
“That’s what we do for the Day of the Dead. We celebrate. We put out food that our loved ones used to love … just to remember them,” Glendy said. “I just hope that our culture is appreciated by everyone.”
Future LSU projects will be determined by the members, according to Metivier-Kearney.
“Every single student in LSU has contributed something to making themselves more present in the school culture. It’s been great,” she said.
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