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The Conversation

It was the last speech of the class, at the end of the day, near the end of the semester — a time when exhaustion and expedience overrule passion at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The university is nestled on a hill adjoining the Home Depot Center sports stadium and a burgeoning industrial park that sits on what used to be the Spanish Rancho Dominguez — later a Mexican rancho — where indigenous Gabrielenos were once used as slave labor. The hill now sits in the city of Carson, five minutes from the streets of Compton and Long Beach, and 15 minutes from oceanfront estates in Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach. The students come from all these places, which makes the class a mix of baby-faced Latinos, some the first in their families to attend college; serious-minded African-Americans; Asians and Pacific Islanders studying math and music; rich white sorority sisters passing time while waiting to be accepted to USC or UCLA; older car mechanics and soldiers of every stripe and color; a rainbow of moms returning to school; and usually some immigrant or exchange student from Poland or Turkey or Russia. All of them are working full-time somewhere, somehow. It’s hard not to respect these students and their ambitions. It’s also hard not to like them. Some are sharp, some are not, but most are hard working and open hearted. Public Speaking is a graduation requirement for every student. I’ve been teaching it like an acting class, one course per semester, for almost 20 years, so I’ve seen it all. Or so I thought.

Only 22 students, about half the class, bothered to show up on May 6. A young Latina named Claudia stood at the podium giving her Speech to Persuade, which called for solidarity in the cause of immigrant rights, a protest against House legislation to turn illegal immigrants and those who harbor them into felons, and a celebration of the May Day boycott and its capacity to shut down ports and restaurants from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters. This land is our land.

It was 7:45 p.m. The class was over. This was the moment when book bags are supposed to be zipped, chairs shuffled, cell phones and headphones reattached to ears. But nobody moved. The students stayed in their chairs. A few hands went up, and the conversation started. I had to mediate, one at a time, please. Suddenly, I was a talk-show host. It was a course in Public Speaking, and at last, after 20 years, in overtime no less, the students were speaking, and speaking and speaking. For about 20 minutes, with all their post-class obligations, families to attend, finals to study for, jobs to get to and dinners to eat, none of them left.

Because they were angry. And they divided into camps. The black students joined an alliance with a Persian GI (studying computer science) and a recent immigrant from Poland, against the Latino block, who supported Claudia with the solidarity she had asked for. All of America was in that class. In those 20 minutes, the fallacy of the melting pot was exposed in a series of tart yet polite commentaries.

The GI complained about car insurance costs that skyrocket because of all the illegal immigrants who literally crash into law-abiding citizens, with no accountability. A trio of black women nodded in agreement. One of them said that the middle class was disappearing because undocumented workers were taking all their jobs — a theory that was swiftly shot out of the sky by one of Claudia’s friends. The Latinos argued that if 14 million illegals returned to Mexico and beyond, American companies seeking cheap labor would join them, and the American economy would collapse.

“We were dragged here in shackles,” said a black woman. “So it’s a little hard for us to hear about people who snuck in here talking about their rights.”

The Pole said that he had waited in the Warsaw snow for hours, for years, waiting for his visa, and then his green card, obeying the laws of this land. It infuriated him that people who had circumvented his tribulations should suddenly be granted amnesty. Unfair, he protested.

The GI argued that laws must be applied to everyone equally, or all we have is chaos.

“Visit any jail, any prison,” said a black man, suddenly joining Claudia’s block, “read any history book, and then tell me when in this country the laws were applied equally.”

Those words hung in the air for a moment, until somebody got up and slipped out the back door, breaking the hypnosis. The room quickly emptied, and 22 students slipped out into the night, across the old rancho, to Palos Verdes and Redondo Beach, to Long Beach and Compton.