El Sereno -- When husband-and-wife team Marcos Aguilar and Minnie Ferguson wanted to start a charter school centered on their culture and taught partly in Nahuatl, a native language of the Aztecs, they realized they would need to go straight to the source, Mexico.
There they recruited teachers who were willing to leave their hometowns to teach in the United States. In addition, they had to get visas for the teachers, train them and help them obtain additional teaching credentials.
The couple encountered several other obstacles and controversies along the way, from laws restricting bilingual education to accusations that the school had a communist agenda. Their school, Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, still struggles.
To this day, Aguliar and Ferguson do not have a principal's office because “the priority is whatever can go to the students first,” said Ferguson.
Anahuacalmecac approaches 20 year anniversary
But as they approach the school’s 20-year anniversary, the school's founders can see some of the fruits of their labor. The school now has about 50 staff members, 276 enrolled students and 153 alumni. Some alumni have gone on to work in the community and others who have received advanced degrees, including one with a masters and PhD from the USC, according to Aguilar, executive director of the charter school. Anahuacalmecac later added a high school as well.
Aguilar said the school’s story starts with his own education near the Mexican border. He was born in Mexicali, Baja California, and raised in Calexico until he was 18 years old.
At his own school, he said he was beaten up by students, and once, even beaten with a paddle by the school principal as corporal punishment. In high school, he said he experienced homelessness for a period and struggled to stay in school.
He then came to Los Angeles to pursue his bachelors in Chicana & Chicano Studies at UCLA. There, it struck him that UCLA didn’t offer American Indian Studies as part of that program, just like most other schools.
A lack of indigenous culture & language
As he realized his culture and native languages were not being taught, he decided to do something about that and start a school.
Ferguson was born in Mexicali and brought to the United States at a very young age. She lived in Lincoln Heights, where she attended Lincoln High, serving as student body president.
The charter school’s name refers to Anahuac, which reflects the continent of indigenous knowledge. One of the school’s expectations is to be a “wind talker.”
“A wind talker makes a reference to the role of language in our schools, and the role of how languages are taught and learned in our school,” said Aguilar.
Students at the charter school are all taught in three languages: English, Spanish, and Nahuatl.
“Our languages should not be extinct, we have a right to look at life through our lens, and our language provides us the framework,” said Ferguson, the school’s director of education.
A DIY school takes root in El Sereno
Without teaching credentials in the Nahuatl language and only a handful of books, Ferguson and the other teachers created curricula from scratch incorporating the indigenous language and culture.
There was a lot to be done.
“We needed money to operate, we needed funding, we needed to kind of clarify our purpose, our mission, we needed a facility to operate and we needed to recruit students and convince parents that this is a good option, at a time when legal obstacles existed,” said Aguilar.
Some of the legal obstacles Aguilar and his team encountered included anti-affirmative action laws and anti-bilingual education laws.
“We use the autonomy of the charter to be able to defend our language rights as well,” he said.
Finding a place to teach was challenging.
They opened their doors to El Sereno residents in an abandoned park recreation room. Teachers from the Los Angeles school district left their positions to work at the charter school and some parents were inspired to be part of the education field, so they became teachers.
Later, the school borrowed money from a non-profit lender, Raza Development Fund, to buy an abandoned Masonic hall in El Sereno.
Other challenges arose
Right-leaning groups “were calling us communists and that the students were really being organized to be an army against the United States, and that we wanted to basically be seditious,” said Ferguson.
Faced with a shut down over its test scores, the school community successfully argued in 2014 that there were other measures of the school’s solid academic performance.
Aguilar said learning through indigenous languages continues to be the school’s focus, along with serving its federally recognized American Indian students and other Indigenous students.
“Our plan is to really foster an ecosystem across the county of Los Angeles that improves the life experience and the educational experience for Indigenous students,” he said.
UT Community News, produced by Cal State L.A. journalism students, covers public issues on the Eastside and South L.A.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that Minnie Ferguson attended middle school in Lincoln Heights and was valedictorian at Lincoln High. That's wrong, she attended only elementary and high school in Lincoln Heights. She was not a valedictorian. Also, the story now includes the correct location of the abandoned rec center where the first classes began.