B-Tech Addresses Increase in Latino Student Population

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday April 15, 2008
Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez
Mark Coplan
Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez

Berkeley Technology Academy’s (B-Tech) hour-long discussion on youth violence with Barrios Unidos co-founder Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez Friday was the first of many events the school hopes to host for its Latino students, who make up 45 percent of the school’s population.  

“We want to show these kids that there are people out there just like them,” said B-Tech principal Victor Diaz. “Like Nane said, there’s nothing our kids are going to say that he hasn’t experienced.” 

Alejandrez, who has lost 14 family members to what he described as “the madness of inner-city America,” also co-chairs the Urban Peace and Justice Summit, a national organization that works to unite African-American and Latino gangs. 

A national urban peace organization based in Santa Cruz, Barrios Unidos arose from the Mexican-American civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. It is also home to the Cesar E. Chavez School for Social Change—an alternative school for at-risk youth modeled on the principles of its namesake. 

A small group of B-Tech students listened intently as Alejandrez recounted his story on Friday. 

“I am the son of migrant farm workers, born in a cotton field in Merigold, Mississippi,” he began. “I stabbed the first kid when I was 13 years old. I shot another guy when I was 15. I almost killed a guy when I was 17 ... And it went on and on and on. In the late 1960s, I was sent to Vietnam to fight a war I knew nothing about. None of the people there called me a ‘dirty Mexican’ I realized all these brown people looked like me. There were so many similarities.” 

Like many young men of his generation, Alejandrez came back from the Vietnam War addicted to heroin. 

“I assaulted a man and almost killed him when I was 27 and I went to prison for 7 years,” he said. “I called out to Cesar Chavez to put me back in university. With the help of someone who believed in me, I was able to return to UC Santa Cruz. I left the violence in 1977 but couldn’t shake off the drugs.” 

Today Alejandrez is a changed man, and it is a transformation he wants to inculcate in the lives of those around him. 

“We need more people like Nane out there,” said Santiago Casal, who helped organize the event as a member of the Berkeley Cesar Chavez Commemoration Committee. “People who are championing social justice and challenging the powers that be.” 

The Berkeley Cesar Chavez Commemoration Committee invited Alejandrez to speak at B-Tech as part of this year’s Cesar Chavez commemoration period celebrations, which begins with the Spring Equinox and continues until the anniversary of his death on April 23. 

B-Tech seniors Jose Franco and Cassandra Perez said they had been inspired by Alejandrez’s speech. 

“There’s not a whole lot of Latino speakers at our school,” said Cassandra. “This is the first time for me. It’s like they are considering us more. Most of the speakers are African-American. It’s cool to learn about other people’s history, but we are like, ‘What about us?’ And now it is “Yeh! it’s about us.” 

Both students said they had encountered violence firsthand. When asked about their role models, Jose and Cassandra named their parents. 

“I grew up feeling really alienated from Berkeley High School,” Jose said. “They think we are juvenile delinquents, but we are not. We are just like them. We just get more help here.” 

B-Tech student support services staff Ariana Casanova said the school was gradually helping Latino students get their lives back together. 

“There’s definitely a larger number of Latino students here this year,” Casanova, who works with 25 Latino students, said. “These are students who left Berkeley High because they didn’t like the environment there or had behavioral problems. Most of them had given up on life, but now 90 percent of them are talking about going to college. We definitely need more resources, especially in mental health to deal with drug and alcohol use, and more after-school programs.”