They haven’t yet finished elementary school. But two young Los Angeles journalists recently turned off the television and put away their toys long enough to make some formal requests, and offer some advice, to the new president of the United States.
Their work, which earned honors in a nationwide competition, uncovered the dark reality that millions of children are living through in 2021: a global pandemic that has hammered their communities amid a social climate of growing tension and fear.
In a sober pair of letters to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., third-grader Ellie Rojas and second-grader Óscar Pérez II, both students at KIPP Promesa Prep in Boyle Heights, pleaded with Joe Biden’s administration to “exercise your position honestly,” “be compassionate” and “direct its resources to the most vulnerable to the coronavirus.”
In an interview, she said: “I would like the actions of the president of the United States to show love and respect for others.”
“That way we can all live in peace,” said Ellie, an only child who lives with her family in Montebello, where the poverty rate is 13.4% and many students, like Ellie, receive free daily lunches at school.
Óscar Pérez II, left, with his mother, Yuri Martínez Pérez, sister Isabella, 4, and sister Kimberly, 13. (Selene Rivera / Los Angeles Times)
Wendy Rojas wasn’t surprised by her daughter’s outspoken directness. The girl watches the news every night with her parents, studies the Bible and loves to play board games such as Loteria, Karaoke, Wheel of Fortune and Pictionary.
Still, Ellie’s words made her mother reflect.
“When I read her letter, it became very meaningful to me because children her age should not be thinking about society’s problems and solutions,” Rojas said.
Ellie and Óscar are members of a journalism club for second-, third- and fourth-graders at Promesa Prep, a charter public school founded in 2015 whose student enrollment is 97% Latino and 2% Black.
They are among nine winning students (and the only two from California) who took part in “KIPP Voices,” a national letter-writing contest created by the KIPP Foundation, a nonprofit that supports* 20 free, open-enrollment public schools serving more than 9,000 students in Southern California, and 255 charter public schools (pre-K through 12) nationally, a total of 112,900 students nationwide. According to school officials, nearly 80% of KIPP SoCal graduates, and 82% of KIPP graduates nationally, go on to college.
Alejandra Frausto, who teaches the journalism club, said adults shouldn’t underestimate how deeply aware even very young scholars can be about current issues.
“With these projects, our intention was to give them the space to express how they felt about what is happening in the world,” Frausto said. None of the letters was edited, he said, because the school wanted the students’ authentic voices to ring out.
For both Ellie’s and Óscar’s families, the pandemic has brought exceptional challenges.
Alberto Rojas, Ellie’s father, is a nurse and his household’s sole breadwinner. Wendy Rojas had to stop working as a part-time nurse to keep up with virtual classes for Ellie.
“Our biggest problem during the pandemic was the daily fear that my husband would get sick and infect us. Even now, when he has been vaccinated, the fear is there,” Wendy said.
Like millions of other U.S. parents, Wendy also had to deal with Ellie’s virtual school instruction, starting with getting home internet service and learning how to use a computer. When Ellie grew frustrated and depressed, her mother tried to convince her that things would be better in the future.
At first, learning about what was happening in her community and the wider world was confusing and scary for Ellie, and she asked her mother lots of questions.
“It was not easy to focus on her classes, but eventually Ellie learned that it is better to be proactive than to worry,” Wendy said. “Doing her letter helped her a lot. The pandemic made her mature.”
Óscar Pérez II hopes President Biden reads his letter to address the issues of racism and bullying in the United States. (Selene Rivera / Los Angeles Times)
Óscar also had questions for his mother, particularly about the previous president’s often inflammatory statements about immigrants. In his letter, Óscar proposed that “the educational system add a class to teach us that all people should be treated with respect.”
“It was difficult to talk about what was worrying me. I had to think about it a lot, but it was fun to write,” said Óscar, who loves to draw, read nonfictions books about animals and nature and amass Shopkins, tiny collectiblew toys based on grocery store items.
Yuri Martínez Pérez, Óscar’s mother, said her son took interest in the street protests that rocked Los Angeles and the nation last year. His awareness helped prod his mother to decide to become a citizen last year so that she could vote for the first time.
“This is the world children live in right now. It is sad, but we cannot cover their eyes to what is happening. Children are too smart,” said the East Los Angeles resident.
Óscar’s father, also named Óscar, works as a UPS driver. Yuri, a homemaker, takes care of Óscar and his sisters Kimberly, 13, and Isabella, 4.
“As an immigrant, I see how other essential Latino workers are suffering disproportionate deaths from the virus and racism,” Yuri said. “Last year, children not only had to live the pandemic but the protests that have divided the country. Many even have to learn about death.”
The KIPP Foundation launched its letter-writing contest to mark the historic occasion of Kamala Harris becoming the first female vice president, as well as to show students that “their voices matter,” Frausto said.
Ellie plans to save her $100 contest winnings for piano lessons. Óscar thinks he’ll spend his on more Shopkins.
Both students hope their letters will be read by politicians open to listening to them, perhaps even by the occupant of the Oval Office.
“Anything can happen if you put your mind to it,” Ellie said, “and us journalists have a lot of power.”
The story was originally published on the LA Times.
About the Author: Oriunda de México, D.F., Selene Rivera inició su carrera de periodismo en 2004, en Los Ángeles, California. Rivera trabajó para el periódico bilingüe Eastern Group Publications como editora, traductora y escritora en temas de política, educación, inmigración, salud y comunidad hasta que su experiencia le abrió las puertas como periodista independiente en HOY. Actualmente, Rivera contribuye con historias informativas del Sur de California.