When teaching elementary school, Ricardo Cortés is careful around these subjects: food, certain holidays. Most especially: grandparents. A stray reference to grandparents can set off a chain reaction that can leave the classroom of fourth-graders in tears. “Most of them grow up with their grandparents,” he explains. “Usually the parent comes first and then sends for them.”
All of the children gathered for a science workshop hosted by the Recreation and Park Department’s Youth Stewardship Program have been in America for a year or less. It’s been a year of firsts for them — first Halloween (they really get into the costumes), first Easter egg hunt (Cortés leaves out the bit about religion and just tells them it’s an American custom). If they get out of line, he threatens to take away their soccer ball. Not recess, just soccer.
“I empathize with them,” says Cortés. The Mission Education Center, where the kids go, was founded in 1973. Cortés was class of 1974. “I know what they’re going through. In the beginning, it’s very happy. Later it gets hard. You live in an apartment instead of a house. It takes a long time to learn to read and write in English. You can’t go outside and climb trees.”
Indeed, Manuel, age 10, cites not being able to play soccer in the street as one of San Francisco’s primary disadvantages in relation to San Marcos, Guatemala. Ramses, also 10, does see some upsides. “The weather is more or less OK here. I like the fried chicken. We went to the Headlands Institute and I saw a starfish.”
Right now the kids are standing in a circle. In the middle, one little girl, blindfolded, is pretending to be a bat, while the other little girl — a moth — tries not to get eaten.
The kids scramble off to the next lesson, invasive plants. “I used to build forts all over the city,” says the workshop’s leader, David Chang. A few feet away, one child tries to pull a wild radish out of the ground, and is joined by another kid, then another, so that they are wrapped around each other and heaving their combined weight back and forth, giggling wildly.
Like Cortés, Chang grew up in the city. His parents emigrated from Peru, which is part of the story behind why he speaks fluent Spanish. “I never got caught,” he says, of the forts.
There is a scream of delight. The force of the radish finally pulling out of the ground has toppled the kids into a heap. They leap up, brandishing the radish like a trophy.
Cortés was taking classes at City College when he decided to become a teacher. The civil wars had begun in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the city put the word out that it wanted a lot of bilingual teachers. “I decided to give it a try.”
Those first classes were different than these. “Those kids had seen people killed. They were more conscious of having relatives back home, in danger. They felt lucky just to be alive. These kids are more regular.”
The kids are gathered in a circle again, talking about what they learned today.
“We need to be careful with animals,” says Kaylan.
“That some animals can eat other animals without looking,” says Manuel.
“I like pulling up the invaders,” says Ashley.
“I like catching animals,” says Dannah. “Then I learned that many of them have poison.”
“I learned how to take care of all animals,” says Brandon.
“I hope you come to this park with your friends,” says Chang, in Spanish. “Because it’s yours. This is your park.”