The eight students walked into a room at Lincoln High School prepared to discuss an issue many people, including some of their teachers, considered taboo.
They were blunt. Carlos Garcia, 17, an A student with a knack for math, said, “My friends, most of them say, ‘You’re more Asian than Hispanic.’ ”
“It’s sad but true,” said Eliseo Garcia, a 17-year-old with long rocker hair, an easy manner and good grades. “I had an Asian friend, but he didn’t necessarily get that great a grades. We used to say, ‘He’s Mexican at heart.’ ”
At The Times’ request, the Eastside students gathered to talk about this touchy subject.
Lincoln Heights is mostly a working-class Mexican American area, but it’s also a first stop for Asian immigrants, many of them ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam.
With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.
Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.
According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.
Asian parents are more likely to pressure their children to excel academically, the students agreed.
Julie Loc, the daughter of a seamstress and a produce-truck driver, said that if she gets a B, her parents ask whether she needs tutoring. She said her father used to compare her to other people’s children, noting their hard course loads or saying, “They have a 4.3 [grade-point average]. Why do you only have a 4.0?’ ”
Many factors influence academic performance: class size, poverty, and school and neighborhood resources. But as the discussions at Lincoln show, expectations loom large.
Fidel Nava, a coordinator for English learners at Lincoln, said some Latino students say that Asians get higher grades simply because, well, they’re Asian.
“In a sense, they have come to believe that it’s OK for Asians to be smart and not for Hispanics,” said Nava, who immigrated from Mexico at 14.
Rocio Chavez, 18, said that even though her older sister graduated from high school, their mother didn’t really expect her to go to college.
“I guess she didn’t expect that from me, either,” Rocio said. “And now that I’m going to move on to college, she’s kind of scared. She gets kind of sad I’m leaving. She’s like, ‘You’re supposed to graduate from high school, go to work and help me out.’ ”
Frank D. Bean, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine’s Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy, has studied the Mexican work ethic and found that work and education occupy the same pedestal, and in some cases, work is even more valued.
Bean said his research shows that children of Latino immigrants, if they drop out of school, are more likely to be working than most other students who leave school.
Latino and Asian families in Lincoln Heights were essentially in the same socioeconomic boat, she said, but Asian immigrants were more likely to have been more affluent and had better education opportunities in their native countries.
A few hours after the eight students concluded their discussion, some teachers gathered in Principal James Molina’s office.
“I feel a little bit uncomfortable talking about racial and ethnic generalizations,” said Cynthia High, a 20-year teaching veteran now in charge of teachers’ aides and other programs.
“In some situations, it sparks a good conversation. In others, it’s more taboo-ish to talk about it,” said William Olmedo, who teaches AP physics.
Barbara Paulson, who coordinates Lincoln’s magnet program and teaches AP biology, said it had been understood for a long time that teachers needed to try harder to recruit Latino students for AP classes because “the Asian kids come on in droves.”
Olmedo said many capable Latino students refused to take AP classes or join other academically rigorous activities.
Teachers said they were saddened by self-defeating attitudes.
“I think the thing I always hear from the Latino kids is, ‘Oh, well, Miss, he’s Asian, she’s Asian. Of course they do well,’ ” said Alli Lauer, who teaches English. “It’s frustrating to hear them do it to each other.”
But as one student said in a separate interview, many Latino students are responding to cues. Johana Najera, 17, said the Academic Decathlon offers a not-so-subtle cue about who belongs.
“We already know that it’s Asian, and they kind of market it more for Asians,” Najera said. She noted that the shirts for the Academic Decathlon team have a logo done in the style of anime, Japanese animation. “It appeals more to Asian students,” she said.
“I’ll send one of my [Latino] boys out just to get water, and here comes the security, ‘Please make sure you send him out with a pass,’ and I’ll say I will,” Olmedo continued. “And the Asian kid will walk around the whole campus, the whole day, the whole week, for a whole month!”