Boyle Heights Through the Eyes of Its Youth


by Barbara Cervone and Cathryn Berger Kaye

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BOYLE HEIGHTS, CA—What can high school students in an urban neighborhood on the East Side of Los Angeles learn from young people almost 10,000 miles away, in a rural village in Tanzania? Plenty.

A transformative experience began for a group of Roosevelt High School teenagers when collabortive teacher Steve Mereu at the School of Law and Government suggested to two of his teaching colleagues that they introduce their senior classes to In Our Village: Kambi Ya Simba through the Eyes of Its Youth, a photo essay book in which East African youth documented their everyday lives.

Mereu, teachers Jeff Matsumura and Monica Yoo and their students were joining an extraordinary grass-roots movement of teachers and students across the globe to show their communities—from Philadelphia to the smallest village in Japan, from Estonia’s capital city to the small town of Albion, New York—from the perspective of young people.

Inspired by the youth in Kambi ya Simba—who once wondered whether anyone outside their village cared about their hopes and struggles—students worldwide have begun creating their own photo essay books in a worldwide service learning initiative called “In Our Global Village.”

Mereu knew firsthand the potential of the project to ignite young hearts and minds. In the summer of 2008, Mereu had helped an American and an Israeli educator create an In Our Global Village book with youth in the jungles of Nepal. Mereu had helped start a school there as part of the Global Alternative Learning Alliance.

A journey

“I can’t simply call our project an ‘experience,’ because that’s not an accurate description,” said Ruby, a Boyle Heights student. “It’s been a journey.”

Last November, Mereu, Yoo, and Matsumura asked more than a hundred senior students what stories and images their own “In Our Village” book might contain. What does daily life in Boyle Heights look, feel, and sound like? Who are its people, where do they come from, what do they do for work, what brings them joy? From where do residents draw their sense of community and cultural pride? What makes Boyle Heights unique?

The youth settled on a list of topics at once personal and exhaustive:

History of Boyle Heights, Roosevelt High School, Language, Mercadito, Religion, Holidays, Quinceañeras, Families, Children, Friends, Famous Streets, Mural, Architecture, Housing, Transportation, Community Clubs, Parks and Recreation, Entertainment, Music, Styles & Fashion, Famous People, Gang Life & Violence, Teen Issues, Immigration, Mom-and-Pop Store, Street Vendors, Jobs, Our Hopes and Dreams.

Then the students, spread across eight classes, dug in. “With a strong sense ofcommunity and cultural pride, and the conviction to leave a written legacy, our seniors started their maiden voyage into the unknown world of publishing,” the three teachers wrote in their preface to the book. “In small groups they took ownership of specific topics and began exploring, researching, drafting, and photographing their individual chapters.”

The students learned—and brandished—perseverance. Writing each chapter required multiple drafts, with six students acting as peer editors. Another team of students took the photographs, all in one month. A third group took responsibility for the book’s layout.  The students completed their 100-page book in seven months.

Along the way, they discovered depth in their community and themselves. “We wrote this book to educate others about where we come from, but we never expected to obtain a better understanding of ourselves,” said Stephanie. Her classmate Alejandra points to the balance of hardship and hope she found in her community. “I learned about things the working class does every day to survive, how hard they work,” she said. “Our community faces many obstacles, but there is a lot to be proud of.”


Boyle Heights, these high school seniors say, has long been an incubator for immigrants, with one ethnic group continually replacing another.  Andrew A. Boyle, for whom the area is named, was an Irish immigrant who established his home in the area in 1858. His son-in-law, William H. Workman, served as mayor and city councilman and helped build the water lines, bridges, and public transportation that connected Boyle Heights to the Los Angeles city center and made it a viable place to live.

As Irish immigrants moved up and out, a thriving Jewish community took its place, joined by the Japanese. In the 1950s and ’60s, Mexican families settled in. Today Boyle Heights is almost 100 percent Mexican in its ethnicity.

“People decide to leave when they have acquired enough money to move to more prestigious areas,” the students write. “In the meantime, they enjoy our community as much as possible and think of it as the most comfortable and perfect way to start their lives.”

These young authors could say the same for themselves. “Their” Boyle Heights is culturally vibrant, a mix of mercaditos and quinceañeras. It is young, with a median age of just 25, and poor: median household income is $33,235. Roosevelt High School, with over 5,000 students, is one of the largest schools in the country. Chronically under-resourced, it “underperforms” by most academic measures.

Yet just like the residents whose stories they chronicle, these Boyle Heights youth have big plans.

Paralleling the last chapter of In Our Village: Kambi ya Simba through the Eyes of Its Youth, the Boyle Heights students share their own hopes and dreams—large and small—in the last chapter of their book.

“I hope that one day segregation between social classes and race will disappear and we can all live in harmony.” – Ismael
“I want to travel the world and discover new places.” – Raul
“I wish I could see my dad again and graduate from college.” – Marissa

They talk about becoming a firefighter, a cop, a neurosurgeon, a tattoo artist, a lawyer, a movie director, a mechanic, a culinary arts teacher, an architect, an author, a bartender, a good parent. And they often tie their aspirations to giving back to their community and making a difference.

“I want to do a lot in my life but my dream is to have a career in medicine and make the world a better place for the next generation.” – Virginia
“My dream is to become a social worker to ensure the safety of kids in Boyle Heights. I want to give back to my community by doing something effective and promoting higher education.” – Alejandra
“I hope that one day my voice will be heard, I dream that my actions will make an impact on the lives of others.” – Georgina

In a fitting wrap-up to their own year of hard work on the book, these students offer their own advice on transformation.

“You can’t face the world if you’re not being you. My hope is we all find ourselves.” – Jessica
“When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on so long in the first place.” – Ruby

When students and teachers unveiled In Our Global Village: Boyle Heights through The Eyes of its Youth to their senior banquet, the response was appreciative. Roosevelt High School Principal Sofia Freire called the In Our Global Village project “a brilliant way to leave a legacy, in the school and the community.”  City Councilmember Jose Huizar said the book, with its fine detail and writing, “captured the essence of Boyle Heights.”

For the 110 seniors who produced the book, it was, in the words of Ruby, “unforgettable.”

Cathryn Berger Kaye is a nationally recognized expert on service learning and, with WKCD’s Barbara Cervone, launched the “In Our Global Village” project.


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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator