Pent-up frustration at persistent racism bursts out in peaceful but powerful march from Forest Grove High School — and sets the region on fire

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - Demonstrators carried American flags, Mexican flags and this specially crafted flag that combines the two, showing their love for both the country their families came from and the country they now call home. The sign was up for only a few minutes. But that was long enough.

“Build A Wall” it read, hanging from a walkway above the Forest Grove High School cafeteria, in plain view of all the students eating below.

“I just felt like a rush in my body,” said FGHS junior Sergio Bucio, who looked up and saw the words. “I was really heated, physically. I was actually sweating.”

The slogan comes from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has vowed to build a giant wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out immigrants trying to enter the country illegally.

For Trump supporters, the slogan is a strong response to a legitimate national problem that Democrats and Republicans alike have struggled to address.

But for most Latino Americans, it’s a veiled threat. It exudes rejection and animosity.

To many Latino students, who make up 46 percent of the FGHS student body, the sign — and a photo of it that circulated on social media — was the last straw after years of denigration. To their supportive white classmates, it capped two months of heightened awareness of prejudice at the school, sparked by a student who stuck his head inside a popular African American teacher’s classroom and said, “There’s the nigger.”

The 600 fed-up FGHS marchers who poured out the school’s doors last Thursday apparently struck a chord with others around the area.

By Friday, students from nearly 20 other high schools had staged their own walkouts in solidarity with FGHS as news outlets from across the region picked up the story.

Instead of the “Build a wall!” chants some FGHS students had yelled in the hallway — and been suspended for — the demonstrators started their own chants as they marched from the high school to the school district administration building: “Stand Up, Forest Grove!” and “Sí se puede!” (Yes we can).

“I felt like it surpassed anything I anticipated,” said FGHS junior Bianca Bermejo.

Bermejo is being credited with instigating the walkout, along with her sophomore sister, Natalia, and a senior, Janet Silva. The three started spreading the idea around 9 p.m. Wednesday through Twitter, Snapchat, texts and other social media, including #StandUpFG.

But Bermejo wasn’t the only student considering such a demonstration. Junior Angie Flores, who recently gathered a group of students to discuss discrimination with the school’s principals — and later with the school board — was also thinking about a way to protest. Before Flores could send her own message out, she saw Bermejo’s.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Students at the Forest Grove Community School were working in their community garden when the marchers drew their attention--and applause. They asked if they could watch, said Assistant Principal Karen Torry, and one said, 'Can we cheer them on?' Many were excited to recognize some of the marchers.

They were both thrilled to see roughly a third of the student body march outside Thursday morning, chanting, cheering and waving banners and flags.

Waiting for them outside were supporters from other Washington County high schools, as well as students from Portland State and Oregon State universities and a member of the Portland Brown Berets.

After a few speeches and cheers, all 700 or so marched off the campus and traveled a mile and a half south to the school administration building, waving Mexican and American flags, as well as a Bernie Sanders campaign sign and banners such as “Build Bridges, Not Walls;” “Judge a person by their actions, not their accents;” “Brown is Beautiful;” and “When will society respect the humanity of all people?”

A red pickup with a torn Trump campaign banner hanging out its window drove past the throng. Some marchers discussed consequences they might face.

“I just talked to mom and we aren’t grounded but she said if we get detention we will have to serve it,” one student told her sibling.

FGHS senior Diana Lopez said some FGHS teachers told students that if they walked to the administration building, they wouldn’t walk in the school’s graduation ceremony, which turned out not to be true.

“I think it’s a long time coming that the student body stand up for what’s right,” said Ryan Kimberly, who has two children attending FGHS. “They have my full support.”

Marina Alvarez, who works with minority students in after-school programs, joined in the march because many of the girls she works with have described times when they haven’t felt safe at FGHS because they’re Latino. Nearly 700 people--including supporters form other schools--marched from Forest Grove High School to the school district administration building last Thursday.

“They need to feel comfortable in their school,” Alvarez said.

“We planned this so the school will hear us,” said Elizabeth Ortega, a FGHS student. “I feel like they don’t do anything. I feel like they just send out letters and say they’re dealing with it but they’re not.”

“I experienced racism while I was here,” said Julian Zavala, who now attends CALC, the district’s alternative school. “I felt like we weren’t treated the same as white kids and we weren’t held to as high of a standard.”

“The school isn’t doing anything about racism. They say, ‘Yes, we are going to work on it’ but nothing ever happens,” said FGHS student Emily Garrett.

“A lot of people don’t see the fact that we look up to the U.S.,” said Bubbles Torrez, a FGHS student whose family came from Mexico. “We have nothing over there and you have everything over here.”

Stephanie Haugen contributed to the reporting of this story.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax watched the march but when asked by the News-Times what he thought about it, said: 'Nothing.'

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - A marcher high-fives a Washington County Sheriff's Deputy who is helping monitor the demonstration

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - Students of all races joined the walkout and march to oppose discrimination against minorities.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - After years of mostly low-level put-downs, Latino students used the march to show pride in their heritage.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - Before marching to the administration building, students and supporters gathered outside the high school to rally the troops.

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