Beneath a modest grove of trees at East L.A.’s Garfield High, a few yards from the football field surrounded by handmade cardboard signs advertising candidates for this year’s prom princesses, Gustavo Delgado, 17, and Leila Linford, 27, along with a crowd of about 500 people, await the arrival of presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. Among the audience’s VIPs are Garfield High principal Omar M. del Cueto and local and state officials, including L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti and California state Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass. But Delgado and Linford showed up three hours early with other Obama volunteers to help set up, and have been rewarded with front-row seats.

“I’ve never seen him before. I’m excited,” says Linford over a pre-event soundtrack that includes cuts from Simon and Garfunkle, Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison. “I get jealous when I hear people get to hear him speak in person, and here I am, up close!”

Linford, a UC Riverside graduate, started volunteering for Obama a few weeks ago. A self-described environmentalist, she lives in Long Beach and until recently worked as an urban outreach coordinator for the Santa Monica environmental group Heal the Bay.

“I consider myself an idealist, and [Obama] speaks to me in that sense,” she says. “I also know he can also get things done. He has an excellent track record. I have done my research and I believe he is working on the people’s behalf. I love that he doesn’t accept any lobbyist’s money — it all comes from us. He wants to bring the power back to the people; he wants to change things and lead our world into a new direction. He was against the war from the beginning, when the war was popular.”

Linford, who wears glitter eye shadow and a T-shirt, suspects that her parents are Republicans — her mom is Cuban and a traditional Catholic.

Linford herself voted for Kerry in the last election. “But I didn’t feel the same way I feel about Obama. I am putting all my heart and soul into this.”

Seated beside her, Delgado wears a neat white button-down shirt and his hair long. The son of two Mexican immigrants, he explains that he has been working on the campaign for months and is a precinct captain in his Orange County neighborhood.

“I just felt I needed to do something to get Barack elected ’cause it wasn’t gonna happen on its own,” he says.

Delgado, like Linford, still lives at home. He’s a student at Cypress College and estimates that he spends some 20 hours a week at school studying international relations and political science, another 20 hours a week working on the Obama campaign, and the rest of his time working part-time serving subpoenas for medical records. He likes competitive swimming and the U.K. music scene — especially the Arctic Monkeys and the Kooks. He has traveled to Las Vegas a few times already to canvas door to door for Obama. This election will be the first time he is eligible to vote, and he’s glad that he has a candidate he can believe in.

“It’s easy to forget about the actual issues. You’re voting for a candidate who is against the war and for comprehensive immigration laws, universal health care — all those are great things. But I think what’s more important is his ability to unite the country and take the country in the direction it needs to go. I think his is the voice that will take us in the right direction. We need a new type of politics. It is definitely time for a change.”

What exactly is “the right direction?”

“I think he is not afraid to deal with countries that don’t agree with or align with the American status quo,” Delgado says, “and that he will bring the country back to its previous status in the world, where we are respected in the world and where we learn to put our priorities in order and care for the people and issues at home.”

Delgado first learned about Senator Obama last year when he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, to which Delgado has a subscription. After reading the article, he bought the senator’s book The Audacity of Hope, and that inspired him. His parents are Democrats, and they like to tease him that they are still on the fence about Obama.

Delgado brushes off their remarks: “I feel certain I am making the right choice with the candidate I am choosing.”

Sandwiched between three celebrity-packed Hollywood fund-raisers — a brunch at the Malibu home of NBC Universal president Ron Meyer, a Beverly Hills lunch hosted by film producer and executive Mike Medavoy and a cocktail-hour visit at the Hollywood home of TV producer Jon F. Vein — Obama’s Garfield visit has refreshingly little flash and plenty of substance.

Standing on the grounds of the school made famous in the 1988 film Stand and Deliver, which immortalized Advanced Placement math teacher Jaime Escalante and showed the possibilities of excellence even in public schools that serve poorer communities (and are therefore working against the odds), Obama comes down hard on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for vetoing the California DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) a few days earlier. (The bill, drawn from a federal version that has been stalled in the Senate, would have given financial aid for college to undocumented immigrant students.)

“That was wrong. Instead of driving thousands of children who were on the right path into the shadows,” he tells the crowd, “we need to give those who play by the rules the opportunity to succeed.”

The Latino population is presently the fastest growing in America, he says to the multicultural audience, and they are suffering from the highest high school dropout rate. This, he makes clear, will have a serious effect on the national economy, given that the Latino population will soon make up a large portion of the American work force.

“If black and brown students are dropping out of school,” he says, “our work force is not going to be competitive in this world.”

Beyond his support for comprehensive immigration reform, Obama tells the invited guests that if, or rather when, he is elected, he intends to improve America’s failing health care and educational systems.

The senator reminds the crowd that he himself did not grow up rich, and that he is the son of an immigrant. Delgado and Linford can relate. He credits his own career success with the fact that he received a good education — the senator attended Columbia and L.A.’s Occidental College as an undergraduate, and then Harvard Law.

When it’s finally time for the senator to leave, Aretha Franklin comes back on the P.A. and there are a lot of handshakes and pats on the back. Linford and Delgado start cleaning up. Linford’s face is aglow, almost as shiny as her eyeshadow.

“I loved it,” she says as she reaches for a couple of folding chairs. “I am reenergized and motivated. You can feel the excitement.”

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