By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Even when the kids are no longer in my house,” he says, “I'm going to keep pushing them to do their best — in all aspects of life. My biggest concern is making sure that my father’s sacrifice was worth it. He turned himself in so these kids could have an education and advance in life. He hasn’t spent 13 years in prison so his kids could come over here and just scrape by.”
Latanya, the second oldest, has done remarkably well in this pursuit. Despite receiving what could best be characterized as sporadic education in Suriname, she was able to graduate from her charter high school in L.A. in a year and a half.
“Even though I wasn’t in school much of my childhood,” she says, “the education I did get was far more advanced than schools in America.”
Quiet and pensive, with dark, serious eyes, Latanya is the reserved intellectual to Kishana’s outgoing businesswoman. She’s now entering her third semester at West Hills Community College in Coalinga, a small college town amid the slaughterhouses and farms of the San Joaquin Valley.
“I wanted to be somewhere quiet,” she says of her decision to go to school in such a remote location. One can hardly blame her.
As they were with her father when he moved from Houston, the children of South L.A. can be less than accepting of outsiders. Her first few weeks in high school, Latanya was harassed and nearly beaten on a daily basis. The situation got so bad that Larry went to the principal, coincidentally an old acquaintance of Watani’s, to make sure the physical threats would stop and that the school would protect Latanya and her siblings.
But even though the threat of physical violence ceased, things at school didn’t get any easier.
“My English still wasn’t that good at the time, and when the teachers made me read in class, the other girls would laugh and insult me. They did the same thing to my sister Natisha — made her feel awful, so she just would stay quiet all the time.”
But Latanya wouldn’t stay quiet. “I didn’t go through all I went through to be intimidated by these girls. I came here to get an education.”
Fed up with the laziness, cruelty and tragically misguided priorities of her fellow students, she went to the principal and told him to call an assembly. Latanya needed to say a few things. The principal agreed to her request, and a schoolwide assembly was called. Latanya strode to the podium alone, in front of the very same people who had chastised her all year, and for the next several minutes, she spoke.
“I told them that in Suriname, we would kill for these opportunities,” she remembers. “I asked them why anyone would want to gangbang when they have access to a free education — to a better kind of life.
“They listened,” she says. “Nothing changed — a lot of the kids stayed ignorant, didn’t care about their education. And the gangbangers still did whatever it was they do. But at least they listened to me.”
After her speech, Latanya was approached by several students who were curious to know more about her and her life in Suriname. She might not have changed any minds about their lifestyles, but Latanya had earned their respect.
While Latanya has thrived under adversity in America, her brothers and sisters have found it more difficult to adapt. In particular, Lige (pronounced like “oblige,” after the man who helped his father escape the U.S.) has struggled to find the balance between meaningful assimilation and losing his way in the minefield of American culture.
A handsome boy of 15, having just passed the awkward stages of adolescence into early manhood, Lige looks and speaks like any other 15-year-old in his neighborhood — with the not-insignificant exception of his lingering Dutch accent. Preferring to dress in the long, spotless T-shirts and baggy jeans of hip-hop fashion, he’s able to converse as freely about American pop culture as a native. It’s a transition that didn’t come easily.
As with his sister Latanya, kids in school confronted Lige for his differences. But while girls can be cruel and even violent, in the gang culture of South L.A., for a young man, such conflicts can be deadly.
“In Suriname, we had our troubles,” says Lige, “occasional fistfights and whatnot. But here, every day you hear about people getting shot.”
What’s startled and troubled Lige most since his arrival in America are the battles between blacks and Hispanics in South L.A.
“Where I’m from, it was diverse — we had black kids, white kids, Hindustani, Chinese . . . and for the most part, everyone got along,” he says. “No one ever called me nigger in Suriname.”
The irony that in bringing his children here, he inadvertently exposed his son to racism — the thing he reviles most in this world and spent his youth fighting to eliminate — weighs heavily on Watani.
“In my wildest dreams, I could never have predicted the conflict between blacks and Hispanics,” says Watani.