Itzel Luna, the managing editor of the Pearl Post at Daniel Pearl Magnet High School, shares her experience feeling a strong sense of belonging at a three-day Chicano Youth Leadership Conference.
With pride radiating off of the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference staff, they welcomed us with a big Chicano clap on the first day of camp, assuring us from the beginning that we matter.
CYLC is a three-day conference that selects Chicano and Latinx students from the Los Angeles Unified School District to learn about the college application process and seek higher education. Funded by Beyond the Bell and the Sal Castro Foundation, named after the late Mexican American educator, the conference was held from Oct. 25 to 27.
CYLC has been held at Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu since the first conference in 1963. However, the camp was held at Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center in San Pedro, Calif. this year after the previous location was burned down during the Woolsey fire in 2018.
Although I have always felt connected to my Mexican culture, I had never really identified as a Chicana. Because of this, I was surprised at the sense of belonging that ran through my veins the second that I stepped into the conference.
The conference kicked off with a “speed dating” ice breaker. We asked each other a series of questions that ranged from our culture and background to our favorite candy.
While eating Mexican food during lunch, we were given a rundown of the conference events and heard from our first speaker, Charlotte Lerchenmuller-Castro, the widow of Castro and president of the foundation.
Shortly after that, we were broken off into “nations” that are named after various indigenous tribes. After each presentation, we would reunite with our nations to discuss what we learned.
With the prime goal of motivating Latino students to go to college, CYLC arranged a college fair for us to attend, where we learned about universities. The schools represented ranged from local schools like the University of California, Los Angeles, to out-of-state schools like Harvard University.
After that, we attended a career fair where we heard from Latinos in many professions, including founder and CEO of Orenda Education Dr. Robin Avelar La Salle and founding attorney of the Monterrosa Law Group, lawyer Rudy Monterrosa.
Over the next two days, we learned about empowering moments for Chicanos, including the 1968 East Los Angeles high school walkouts, led by Castro himself. During our campfire, a mariachi band also performed Spanish songs that made us all jump to our feet as we sang and danced along.
In addition to presentations about financial aid and college requirements, we were taught simple dance moves, including the steps to “El Caballo Dorado.” We also had the chance to practice our new moves during a formal dance on Saturday night.
“No sean mensos. Go to college… and graduate,” was one of Castro’s most memorable lines.
It was consistently said throughout the conference to reiterate the importance of us attending college despite the low statistics stacked against us.
This life-changing conference has not only reinforced my decision to attend college but also reminded me that doing so isn’t just for me. It’s also for the future generation of Latino students that I will be able to mentor because of the skills that CYLC has given me.