Fourteen percent of California's schools have Hispanic enrollments of 80 percent or higher. Montebello's divide between assimilated Hispanics and those more comfortable with their traditional culture and first language defies common perceptions of a monolithic demographic group.

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MONTEBELLO, Calif. — During lunch, there is a line at Montebello High School that students on either side rarely cross. Part gravel, part grass, it runs between a row of bungalows and buildings, lopping off the short end of the L-shaped quad.

They call this the border.

It separates rock music from ranchero. Cheerleaders from folklorico dancers. English from Spanish.

To outsiders, students at Montebello High, east of Los Angeles, are mostly the same: 93 percent Hispanic, 70 percent low-income. But the 2,974 Hispanic students on campus know otherwise. As at many schools in California, students here are delicately split — in classes, sports and clubs, at social events and at lunch — between those who seem more Americanized and those who feel more connected to their immigrant roots.

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Students call one side of the campus “TJ,” as in the Mexican city of Tijuana. During lunch and break periods, students who hang out in TJ gossip, chat and flirt mostly in Spanish. From homes where Spanish is the primary language, many are still learning English. Besides soccer, folklorico and the Spanish club, few students in TJ are involved in extracurricular activities on campus.

The other side


On the other side of the border, in an area with a brightly painted quad and a new cafeteria, is Senior Park. This is where students immersed in traditional American high-school culture hang out. They include football and basketball players, student-government leaders and members of the water-polo and drill teams. Many come from Mexican-American families that have been in California for several generations. English is the predominant language. Some don’t know Spanish.

The groups don’t hate each other. Some cross between the two sides and have friends on both. But some talk bitterly about a divide. Others acknowledge it as inevitable, even if they wish it weren’t.

“It’s like two countries,” said senior Lucia Rios, 17, a Mexican American with blond-highlighted hair. Rios is co-captain of the drill team and eats lunch in the Senior Park area. She is proud of her Mexican heritage, but relates to American culture. Rios’ parents, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as teenagers, stopped speaking to her in Spanish when she was 5 years old.

Rios has never spent lunch in TJ. Most students who hang out there “relate to the culture of Mexico,” she said. “If I was to go to TJ, they would look at me weird like, ‘Why is she here?’ “

GENARO MOLINA / LOS ANGELES TIMES
Jose Perez, 16, dressed as a vaquero for Halloween, waits for his class to start at Montebello High School in Montebello, Calif.


On the other side, in TJ, Alex Blanco, 17, ate lunch under two small trees near the school theater. This is where he and other members of the folklorico dance team spend time. Blanco said he never travels to Senior Park because, he said, “It is too far.” Blanco came to the United States from El Salvador six years ago. He said people made fun of him because he spoke only Spanish. At first, he was sad. But now, he said, “I’m proud of who I am. I won’t get [mad] at what they say.”

But his friends get mad.

Students in Senior Park “think they are so much better than us because they were born right here,” said Blanco’s buddy, Cecilia Ochoa, 14, a sophomore who moved to the United States from Mexico four years ago.

The bell rang. A student shouted “Vamonos!” Ochoa headed to her fifth-period class. She went through an alley between buildings, avoiding Senior Park. “I don’t talk to people over there,” she said. “I don’t know them.”


The bigger picture


Montebello High illustrates a larger issue of how California and its schools have changed, said Chon Noriega, director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Last year, 14 percent of the state’s schools had Hispanic enrollments of 80 percent or higher, according to a Times analysis.

Nobody expects a mostly white campus to be monolithic. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Montebello High isn’t either, Noriega said. Yet some non-Hispanics are oblivious to the differences, he said, because the public thinks “about Latinos in very broad terms,” like economic and political power.

“It’s important for the schools to take these differences into account,” he said. “Otherwise the schools will fail in taking a cookie-cutter approach” to a diverse population.

Principal Jeff Schwartz says he treats students equally and tries to instill respect between groups. If students are speaking English with an accent, he reminds others not to laugh because it is better to practice than to never learn.

The outside world sometimes stereotypes his campus, he said, assuming that everyone at Montebello High speaks Spanish and just crossed the border.


A gentle nudge


Fitting into mainstream English classes is sometimes hard for English learners, said Laura Galindo, bilingual facilitator at the school. Once, Galindo moved two English learners into mainstream English courses. After a few days, they came to Galindo pleading to be moved back. “They were scared,” she said. “They didn’t know anybody.” But she persuaded them to stay.

Galindo said her staff works hard to push immigrant and English-learner students out of their comfort zones.

“I tell kids, ‘Join a club, join Key Club, they speak English there,’ ” Galindo said. She steers them away from soccer, or groups that focus on Hispanic culture, where most students speak only Spanish.

On a recent afternoon, Margo Bonsall, a freshman counselor, looked at her office walls, which are covered with posters of cheerleading teams she has advised since 1986. She spotted only a few immigrant and English-learner girls, out of nearly 200.

“What is sad is immigrants come with really good skills, but they don’t have the money,” she said. When they find out uniforms and other expenses can total $1,200 a year, “there’s no way,” she said.

There is a slang term that students in mostly Latino schools use to separate those who seem more connected to their Latino roots than to American culture: “paisas.” It comes from the word “paisano,” meaning peasants or countrymen.

“It’s a softer way of saying ‘wetback,’ ” said Joe Lechuga, 17, also known as “Buddha.” He and other Mexican-American students who hang out in Senior Park say the term is affectionate, not malicious.

“Then there’s the Chicanos like us,” said Buddha’s friend, Carlos Tesillo. “We wear American fashion. Not too much Mexican heritage. But we don’t forget our Mexican roots because we know we’re Mexican. We never forget it. We take pride in it.”

Buddha and Tesillo are football players. They are not hostile toward the students in TJ. In fact, they are friends with one of them, a football player named Domingo Beltran.

Beltran, 17, grew up speaking Spanish. When he speaks English, he said, “I feel stupid.” He is mainstreamed into English classes, but he regularly asks or answers questions in his first language, even when teachers demand English.

In the past, Beltran hung out only in TJ. Last year, he made the football team, and his circle of friends expanded. Now, he traverses TJ and Senior Park, always careful to divide the 40-minute lunch period between cliques.

“I spend lunch on both sides,” he said. “I don’t want my old friends to think I’m not their friend anymore.”