“I wanted to do something different ... I wanted people to take me seriously,” says Alejandro Villa, a Gandhi Non-Violence Awardee.
By Raymond R. Beltran
For eighteen year old Alejandro Villa, a Barrio Logan resident in a blue collar family, Point Loma High was already a school in racial animosity before immigration debates sparked student walkouts this year.
“If you want to see culture clash, come to Point Loma,” he says. “Hispanics don’t get along with the whites, and the other way around. We’re the bussed in kids.”
When congress introduced HR 4437, an anti immigration proposal that gained national attention in March, Alejandro noticed a split within his own diverse pool of friends at school. During the walkouts, trash talking ensued and instead of becoming a part in the tirade, he began his own student crusade, one that earned him the Tariq Khamisa Foundation’s Gandhi Non-Violence Award this last weekend.
“I wanted to do something different, because the media was showing Latinos as uninformed and rowdy,” Alejandro says. “I wanted people to take me seriously.”
On the Thursday of the week that the student walkouts began, he wrote a letter of intent to the principal, Barbara Samilson. The letter stated he was going to gather as many students as possible into the school auditorium where, in mediated dialogue, Latino students and whites would confront each other face to face. The turnout was “surprising” he says.
“The white students asked, ‘If you live in the U.S., why do you wear the Mexican flag?’ […] There were very few Hispanics, but they were willing to speak out too,” remembers Alejandro. “Some of the Hispanic kids said, ‘Hey, my mom could be cleaning one of your homes’ or ‘They say we don’t pay taxes but we buy things. There’s a tax on that.’”
The forum didn’t land Point Loma in a state of harmony, Alejandro admits, but for a school that was already in unrest, he created what most governments won’t, a peaceful arena to begin breaking racial barriers.
“It’s important for students to have a forum,” he says. “If they mediate, they speak out and it eases tension, and people actually saw everyone else’s point.”
The Ghandi Non-Violence Awards he was nominated for are an annual event created by the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, a non-profit group where founders Azim Khamisa and Plez Felix talk to student youth about gang violence, destructive lifestyles, and becoming peacemakers.
TKF was named after Azim’s slain son, Tariq. The group was founded because of a tragic night eleven years ago when Tariq, a twenty year old SDSU student, was gunned down while delivering pizza for DeMille’s Pizza. Plez Felix’s son was the fourteen year old gunman. He’s twenty-six now and serving a twenty-five to life prison sentence at New Folsom California State Prison in Sacramento.
What could have turned a tragic incident into a lifelong path of resentment for father, Azim, actually turned into a bridge between two men, and ultimately a foundation that attempts to put a to halt future acts of violence.
In Azim’s book, Azim’s Bardo: From Murder to Forgiveness, A Father’s Journey, he tells the tale of how his life transcended from anger to outreaching. Azim, a Muslim in faith, experienced a bardo.
“Bardo [Tibetan belief] describes a transitional state - a gap between the end of one life state and the onset of another,” reads the TKF website. “Buddhists believe bardos represent times of opportunity. If you have prepared yourself with the wisdom of the masters, your soul can make a quantum leap in its quest for enlightenment.”
For Azim, that opportunity meant seeking consolation between his family and the Flez family, both creating a foundation based on preventing violence.
Their website also reads, “Youth homicide and suicide rates are higher in the U.S. than in any of the 26 wealthiest nations. 182 children are arrested for violent crimes EACH DAY in America Every 3 hours a child or teen is killed by a firearm.” The group engages middle schools students in forums like Peace Works and Circle of Peace that educate students about peaceful resolutions to problems. They also hold monthly diversity discussions.
The group’s Gandhi Non-Violence Awards were created in November 1995, and this year, eight people were rewarded, Pacific Bakery owner Chuck Lowery for donating to peace organizations, Pathways to College President Charlaine Carter, Nazareth “Naz” Simmons of the poetry collective Able Minded Poets, Children’s Mental Health Services Psychiatrist Jeffrey Rowe, the entire Community Resource Center of Encinitas, pastor and counselor of New Life Presbyterian Church Melvin Takahara, Alejandro Villa, and sixteen year old Carolina Bracamonte of Hoover High School.
“Both Carolina and Alex impressed me with their poise and eloquence on stage,” says Dianne McKay, board member at TKF. “I am amazed at the remarkable service they have given to others at such a young age. They will go far.”
Carolina Bracamonte, a sophomore, helped a fifteen person committee organize The Teen Relationship Violence Conference earlier this year that educated youth about boyfriend and girlfriend abuse.
“At first, I didn’t know what it was,” she says. “But then we heard stories about boyfriends becoming possessive and how a girl was killed after a break up.”
Bracamonte was recruited as chairperson by Megan Burke of KPBS’s National Center for Outreach for her participation in the high school program Cardinal’s Interact, a program that helps students improve social skills and offers college opportunities.
For students, the conference shed light on warning signs of violence, how play fighting can escalate between a dating couple or how companions can cause their boyfriend or girlfriend to alienate friends and family. They also learned that one in five youngsters is a victim of relationship abuse and its three ‘ties’, sexual, physical, and psychological or emotional.
“For me, it has helped me become more aware, and if I don’t like something I know I can speak up and let [someone] know my limits,” says Bracamonte, who says she has even seen warning signs in her friends who’ve become distant since engaging in dating relationships.
In the beginning of the conference, some students, boys and girls, agreed that it was okay for boys to hit girls if a girl engaged in hitting or pushing. Some girls said they flirt with the opposite sex to make their boyfriends jealous.
“At the end of the conference, we took a second questionnaire and some of their opinions changed,” remembers Bracamonte. “All of the things that were taught, they [students] didn’t know. It felt good just knowing that I could help others out, to help educate them.”
Students were given hotlines to call (1-800-DVLINKS) if they ever become victims.
Bracamonte plans to transfer to a four year college, either UCLA or Riverside, and is thinking about psychology.
“Writing is my passion, but I also like working with teenagers,” she says. “I’m good at listening to my friends, and they ask me how I feel about their problems. Maybe I could do that.”
Information about the Tariq Khamisa Foundation is available on the internet at www.tkf.org.