Roxana Dueñas remembers walking through the streets of Boyle Heights to get to school. She attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, which was the site of the 1968 walkouts. During the 1968 walkouts, Chicano students protested unequal treatment. Today, Dueñas is walking those same streets leading a new protest but this time as a teacher. She is one of the thousands of teachers striking on behalf of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) as they seek higher pay and better classroom conditions. She has also quickly become the face of the LA teachers strike as her image has been seen on posters, billboards, and classroom walls across Southern California.
Roxana Dueñas is steadfast and determined in the LA Teachers Strike poster urging people to “Stand With LA Teachers!”
CREDIT: Credit: UTLA
Dueñas, 34, has taught history and ethnic studies at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for the past nine years. Growing up in the neighborhood was a big reason she wanted to return and teach there after graduating from UCLA with her master’s in education. It was her time at UC Santa Barbara, however, where she learned about Chicano studies and how was she was devoid of the history that happened at her own high school.
“My high school experience was positive for the most part but when I took my first ethnic study class in college I learned that my high school was part of the Chicano walkouts,” Dueñas said. “They never taught us about it and it made me realize not everyone had the same experience as me growing up.”
That’s why she made it a mission to create a learning environment where students could learn about their culture. In 2014, her and two other teachers created an ethnic studies curriculum that taught students about the local Chicano history that happened in their neighborhood. Her colleagues and students acknowledge her commitment and passion for teaching, it’s also a big reason why she was chosen to be highlighted on a poster.
Ernesto Yereno, a local Boyle Heights artist, chose to highlight Dueñas because he knew what her image represents in the majority Latino school district.
CREDIT: Credit: Ernesto Yerena
Yerena, who has a studio in Boyle Heights, met Dueñas after realizing they had mutual friends and shared similar views. After the UTLA approached him about creating some work for their campaign, he knew Dueñas was the perfect embodiment of what the strike should be representing.
“Roxy is an awesome teacher and an even better person. A lot of the kids look up to her in the community,” Yerena said. “I knew what impact she would have so it was a no-doubter to have her as the face of the strike.”
The 32-year-old artist specializes in political art, particularly work that highlights Latino people and culture. He says that highlighting a person of color is important especially in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where less than 11 percent of students are white and 66 percent of teachers are people of color.
“A lot of times people tell me they see themselves in my work and, as brown people, we never see someone like us so when they do its a big deal,” he said. “Representation matters especially a majority Latino area like this. Growing up all I had were white teachers so Roxy is a mirror image of who she is standing up for on the picket lines.”
Dueñas recalls two young girls asking to take a picture with her and having her one of her students show the poster as her lock-screen image. “To me it’s unbelievable and it empowering to see young girls look up to you. It makes me feel like we’re on the right side.”
Dueñas says she is humbled by the artwork and wants it to remind people of the importance of the changing demographics in this country.
CREDIT: CREDIT: Empan16/Twitter
When asked what it means to not only be the face of the strike but have it be a Latina, Dueñas said she hopes it’s the start of a shift in representation.
“I’m optimistic,” she says. “It means there’s a change in terms of the demographics of our teachers and the students they serve in their communities nationwide.”
She acknowledges that school is more than just a place to learn for many students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The majority of students are low-income as more than 80 percent of its students get free or reduced-price lunches. Parents use school as daycare, a place where their children get fed and foster relationships with teachers especially here in East LA.
“That’s the driving force behind our school site. They are more than just academic learning centers but a place where they foster relationships with teachers,” Dueñas said. “You can’t serve without observing the other. These things are interconnecting and our young people have a broad range of needs.”
The LA Teachers Strike has brought support from students and parents that Dueñas says reminds her of why she got into teaching in the first place.
CREDIT: Credit: Twitter/JosephBrusky
“It all has definitely been humbling and really its surreal to see my face everywhere,” Dueñas said. “I was pouring rain the first four days of the strike and we had parents and students come by to show their support, I can’t put that into words.”
Dueñas, whose father was a cook and had a stay-at-home mom who immigrated from Mexico, says she’s been approached by many parents thanking her for taking a stand for their children’s education. She understands the sentiment and the responsibility she has not only as a teacher but as a role model in the working class neighborhood she grew up in.
As union leaders and teachers reached an agreement after six days of picketing, Dueñas says addressing issues like smaller class sizes and hiring more support staff is more imperative than ever. She says the strike was bigger than just one demand but an attempt to transform a place of learning especially in communities of color like Boyle Heights.
“When I see my students for the first time after the strike ends, I want to tell them one thing,” Dueñas said. “I want them to see that organizing works and I hope more importantly they can see themselves making a difference in their own community.”
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