Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.
Veena Hampapur: And I’m Veena Hampapur. Students spend a good chunk of their waking hours in school. And even more when considering extracurriculars, zero periods, and afterschool programs. But a young person’s world extends far beyond the classroom. What’s happening at home and in their neighborhoods, what they see in the media and online — all of these things impact learning.
Saba Waheed: So it’s no surprise that the recent teachers strikes weren’t just about wages; they were also about access to school counselors, nurses, smaller classrooms and wraparound services. Teachers reminded us that we need to think about students in a holistic way.
Veena Hampapur: In today’s episode of Re:Work, Los Angeles history teacher Rudy Dueñas takes us through his own history at LA Unified School District. First as a student then as an educator, and through the moments that transformed him in and out of the classroom.
Rudy Dueñas: My name is Rudolfo Rudy Dueñas, but my friends call me Rudy. I grew up in northeast Los Angeles.
Prior to my family moving into that community, it was predominantly an Italian community. Around the seventies, there was an influx of Latino immigrants and my family was one of those families that came from Mexico. My dad was a bracero in the bracero program.
I lived in two worlds. I lived in a low income community, right, but at the same time, I had this natural beauty around me. We lived in the mountains and the hills. We had a lot of trees, we had birds, we had nice little trails. As kids, we would just walk through the community and enjoy that. We would slide down the hill. When the grass was really dry, we’d slide down with cardboard boxes. Stand By Me is one of the like reference points that I like to tell people. You walk around and you see all these beautiful places that you could hike to. And the train tracks and the bridge across. All that was like my community. So it was beautiful. There was that, plus community members, you know, on our block, we were all connected with one another. Everybody had each other’s back and kids would hang out. We would tell stories on our block, til late.
Saba Waheed: Rudy was the youngest in his family, and he idolized his eldest brother Salvador who was ten years older. While his middle brothers would tease him, Sal always looked out for him.
Rudy Dueñas: My oldest brother, Sal, he was my hero. Ironically, his name is Salvador, which is savior, you know? So he was like my savior, I really looked up to him.
My brother would put on Johnny Chingas, which has very graphic lyrics. And then there was this low rider scene that he would always play and we would act like we were lowriders. That was one role he played, this really funny guy that I would laugh with and look up to in that way.
I always felt like he was protecting me because I was the littlest one.
This one time, my brothers, we were playing in the yard, and my brother threw something really dangerous at me, I never knew what it was. Then my brother came home with my parents and I’m like, “Could you believe it? [inaudible] hit me with whatever.” He’s like, “What? Get over here,” and he chased him. He’s like, “Don’t ever hurt your little brother, man. What’s wrong with you guys?” And he would check them. They would fall in line. Those are the memories, like him really protecting us.
Veena Hampapur: Rudy was born in the US, but Sal was ten-years-old when he moved to Los Angeles. And by the time he was 12, Sal was in a gang.
Rudy Dueñas: In the eighties, there was a lot of gang violence. That’s what was always being talked about was, “Oh, you live where? In Cypress Park, Highland Park? Oh, watch out. There’s a lot of gangs there.”
If you were a gang member, you got a lot of respect, you got a lot of attention, whether it was the other males respected you as a male, or a lot of females would want to hook up with the cholos. You were kind of like a superstar in your community. And so I think my brother fell into that trap of over sensationalized gang life. There was goods and bads, and so it’s not just all negative. Culturally, there’s like a long legacy of gang history in the United States, and particularly in Los Angeles. My brother’s gang goes back to the 1940s. And there was always violence, and it was also part of a marginalized community, the Mexican-American community, that was that history and that legacy.
We could tap into the attacks on the Zoot Suit. You see this community of youth being criminalized, from the 1940s.
Part of gang culture, what I noticed with my brother growing up, was it was that in essence. He was very proud and he had some sense of identity, but at the same time, there was all these other negative things. Some of them were outside forces that were being imposed in our communities. Like, drugs were being pumped into like low-income communities in Los Angeles. I was really young, so I saw through like a little kid’s lens.
I had a little chain that was hanging from my pants. It was like those cheap dress pants that you buy at the swap meet or something. And it’s like the church pants. But this had like a little chain. So I was like, “Oh, I want to be a pachuco”, you know? And that was that pride element.
I saw the good elements of the gang, but some of these negative elements were kind of hidden. This narrative of gangs kind of was different for me, because I was seeing the brotherhood, the sisterhood, just amongst, like, cholos and cholas. The pride and the pride in the culture, and like connection to the zoot suit.
Saba Waheed: At 14-years-old, Salvador was arrested and remained incarcerated until he was 18.
Rudy Dueñas: So a lot of his teenage years and a lot of my Saturdays were spent visiting at CYA, California Youth Authority. That really impacted my life a lot. Just seeing my brother being incarcerated, and going to school in the prison system. They were also learning within the jail culture,like this really negative. If it was negative out in the streets, when they came out of jail, it was like 10 times as negative and you’d see that.
And so my brother spent a big portion of his youth inside jail. So I also learned about that culture. Going to visit them on Saturdays and taking El Pollo Loco and sitting with my family.
When my brother was released out of prison, my family was like, “You know what, you gotta straighten your act.” And he was trying real hard to adjust to society.
Veena Hampapur: In 1986, Rudy was in the second grade. One fateful Sunday, his family was all together watching the Superbowl.
Rudy Dueñas: We’re watching the Chicago Bears. They were winning. And I was happy, because my brother was with us, but then he took off that day, and later on that night, he was down the street with his friends and were talking, and a car passes by and starts shooting.
My brother was shot in the head, and he ended up at USC County Medical. He was put on a machine, and so my family had to make that decision, like, “Are we going to keep him alive?” But pretty much he was, there was no way of saving my brother.
Saba Waheed: Rudy was traumatized by Salvador’s death.
Rudy Dueñas: His death brought me to a place where I had a sense of heightened anxiety but heightened fear of just survival.
There was fear of, like, day to day things. It was like, “Oh man, am I going to wake up tomorrow?”
And it’s crazy, because it’s like no one helped me process that. There was no grief counselor. A lot of these teachers were from outside the community.
They were all pretty much middle class. You know, so they weren’t living our realities. School was just a place you go and you learn, but you don’t talk about real issues.
The most I got was my second grade teacher, when I came back, it was a week after my brother passed away. I couldn’t handle being in class in the beginning, so I ran out and I was crying on the porch, and then she came over and she, like, patted my shoulder, and she said “Everything’s gonna be okay. And when you want to come in, you can come in.” And I thought in my head, like, “What do you know, lady? Like, everything’s gonna be okay? No, nothing’s going to be okay.”
And it’s crazy because it’s like, I would love to say, like, there was only a few people that died in my community in that way, you know?
But my brother was part of a pattern of violence that was going on in my community.
Six years later in 1991, they were trying to kill my brother-in-law, and they shot into the car and my sister was also shot in the head. It’s like part of the same pattern of violence. That was the trauma that you lived through in Los Angeles, and it was kind of like normal. Not every family had that story, but you knew someone, or, “Oh man, look at these people.” And it was like prison or death, you know?
Being without my brother, it was that consistent, that sense of fearing death and fearing violence and fearing all these things.
And then when my sister passed away, it would just like reinforced that.
Veena Hampapur: In their early days pretending to low-ride, Sal had inspired Rudy’s love for acting. After his death, the arts became a space for Rudy to process his feelings.
Rudy Dueñas: They wanted to do like an end of the year celebration. And I’m like, “Oh man, I’m gonna do a play.” I got of a group of people that were sixth graders. I like freestyling hip hop too so I’m Mr. Freestyle sometimes. So even back then, I was like, “Let me just freestyle this play.”
And so we did this little skit about my brother going to jail, and at the end, my brother dies, and I did the role of my brother. It shows you how big a part of my life this was.
Saba Waheed: When Rudy got to high school, he was sure he was going to continue acting and eventually become a drama teacher. But then, he found another passion.
Rudy Dueñas: I had a lot of mentors. Well, “femtors”, right? I want to say, “femtors”, because one of the most important people in all my schooling was Miss Litwin.
She was the first teacher to tell the class, “I’m going to teach you some stuff about your community, but someone else should be teaching you this. It should be someone from your community teaching you about your community, but we don’t have that so I’m going to teach you this stuff.”
I was like, “Wow,” it was really cool. And listening to her lectures and listening to what she was talking about made me think, one, maybe I want to do history as a major, but also I took on that challenge that she put forth. I want to be that person that she’s talking about, like that person that comes back to the community and teaches about their community issues. She was one of the first people to really say that publicly, and I really appreciated that.
I was part of a program called Humanitas which she was part of and you would talk about issues and we would connect what we were reading like The Scarlet Letter to feminism.
You were seen as an intellectual and you were seen as someone that had an opinion, they would ask you questions.
And second semester, they pulled me out. I don’t know why.
The other classroom that they transferred me to, it was like bookwork. It was very traditional, very top down. The teacher just looked frightened. She was afraid of the students. The kids rebelled against that and there was no sense of connection.
That contrast, it really impacted me. I was like, “Oh man,” like I saw two different worlds. It stuck in my brain beyond that classroom. It was really formative on my thinking about education
Veena Hampapur: During a museum field trip, Rudy realized this two-tiered system extended across the school district.
Rudy Dueñas: Those kids from all over LA, I thought they were from Orange County. I’m like, “They’re not from LA. They don’t sound like me. They don’t look like me.”
I realized being affluent and being from those communities, you were so sure about what you were saying. Like, you had no doubt. Then in my community, you doubted and always like if somebody tells you something, you’re kind of like, “Oh, maybe I’m wrong.”
I was like, “Oh, dang. This is LA. This is how different schools are different. You just have different type of people.”
Saba Waheed: At the same time that Rudy became more aware of the inequalities in the school system, he was also learning about historical student organizing.
In 1968, 22,000 East Side high school students walked out in protest. They were upset. The schools were not preparing them for college and pushing them into low-skilled work. Their buildings were falling apart and teachers weren’t adequately trained. The walkouts brought national attention to the Chicano movement.
Rudy Dueñas: The imagery of the 1968 Walkouts was really powerful to me. I saw pictures, and I was like, “Oh, man, I could connect with this.” There was this new group called La Raza Unida that had started at my school. When I joined, I was learning about culture, I was learning about resistance.
These young people were geniuses, and they were already knowing what was up. And that’s the same year, Proposition 187 was on the ballots. That just created such a big political movement. This law was gonna be an attack on immigrants.
Veena Hampapur: In 1994, Prop 187 would have kept undocumented immigrants from getting the healthcare, education, and services they needed.
Rudy Dueñas: And the narrative I would see in the media; like there was these horrible commercials that would come out. It was almost like Nazi propaganda when they would have Jews as rats. They would have immigrants crossing the freeways and then they’d put this scary music. I felt like personally attacked so explicitly.
There was so many things in my life that I had no control over and I was like frustrated at that. So when this came along I was like, “Yeah! I could join in the struggle that I do have control over.” It was a sense of agency.
And the ’68 kids, they did that. I’m like, “Oh I could do that too! If they did it, I could do it.”
When I got involved politically, it was like, “Oh, this is so cool. I’m learning about history from people,” and most of them were college age or my peers.
You pretty much had the high schools kinda building their own roadmaps. And saying, “This is what’s good for our school.”
We had our sit in and it was huge. It was a lot of students there. It was like, awesome! And we had a big rally and then we marched around our community after and it was really empowering.
I actually saw it in a Sociology book in college. I was like, “Oh man, that was my high school! That’s cool.”
It’s almost like modeling the 1968 model.
People were talking about how this was a continuation of that.
Saba Waheed: Rudy’s high school experience cemented his path to becoming a history teacher. He knew that he had to continue this legacy of connecting the past to current struggles.
Rudy Dueñas: History’s very crucial to organizing. If you’re trying to fight against something that is wrong, you have to be informed.
It’s not just, here’s a bunch of facts and this is what you’ve gotta learn, but it involves being critical. And also, telling the narrative of communities.
I was like, “I’m college bound. My job is going to be to help people in the community.” Even though it wasn’t always done that for me.
Teachers can impact people, so let me do it through that avenue.
There’s this very negative experience I had in LAUSD schools, but then there was also these positive elements. And the positive elements always came from the people, you know? The way they taught or the way they spoke and the way they mentored you. That’s what inspired me.
I was like, “You know what, there are some things about the system that I don’t like and I want to change when I’m there.” So I already started envisioning how it would be like.
Veena Hampapur: Rudy has been teaching at Wilson High School in El Sereno for almost two decades. He finds that his own life experiences are an important tool for connecting with his students.
Rudy Dueñas: The thing about having a brother that was in a gang was, I was able to see a person in many different ways. Even the people I grew up with. Some of them just saw cholo as a negative so they stood away. I couldn’t do that, that was my brother, that was my family. I empathize and I sympathize, I connected with these kids.
I feel like they’re my brothers and sister, but at the same time also I feel this sense of I need to help, I need to connect. And I feel like I could talk to them in a certain language. And so they understand.
What I always do is I share my family story. I tell a story about my brother and my sister.
I share how I have anxiety now, I’m open and that’s like where kids were like, “Oh.” Like they’ll come up to me and tell me, “Oh, me too.”
I’ve had students tell me, “Oh my parent was deported.” Or, “My father passed away ’cause of cancer.” Or like death, incarceration, immigration issues.
I tell them, “Dude I feel you, 100%, ’cause I’ve been through that.” And then I’m like, “Oh my God, thank you. I’m learning from you.”
I feel sometimes not enough people talk to them on that human level. And so I wanted to make sure that I was that person that would at least try to engage in those conversations. And tell them like, “This is a safe space for you. We all do things that maybe we shouldn’t do, but let’s have a discussion and hopefully that discussion will lead to some positive things.
We don’t have that space in schools where we can talk about these things. And flesh these things out and build these relationships.
And I get really frustrated when it’s like, “Oh, it’s because of resources. I can’t fully help these youth go through their process.”
Things like restorative justice and like building community on campuses is something that’s really essential that our schools need to have more people that really help youth out that are struggling with a lot of things. I think that’s really front and center for me.
Sometimes I would be talking to a youngster and they got locked up or they’re gone or they got kicked out of the school. Literally, I was almost like talking to my brother and my sister.
Even wanting to talk to them is almost like wanting to talk to my brother and my sister out of doing things.
Some of these youngsters never hear a teacher talk to them in a certain way and they’re like, “Whoa, wait a minute. Like I’m not used to this.” And then I also like rapping and freestyling and so they’ll see me freestyle and then they’ll be like, “Okay, he knows what’s up.” Since you know, I know what’s up, like let’s talk for real.”
Saba Waheed: Can you freestyle about education?
Rudy Dueñas:I was doing a freestyle. It’s on someone’s Instagram somewhere, the day of one in the strikes. I don’t know if I even have a beat, but I could do it. I compelled it. It’s okay.
I see teachers marching and it’s an art and they don’t know what art is because art is not taught in schools but in a fully packed classroom. And sometimes we ain’t got no room to breathe because we are the ones that they want in cage. But I’m telling you, man, I been listening to rage and I been taking notes and let me tell you, sometimes I want to quote a lot of things that are going through the minds of people that I can’t say cause it’s too explicit. But let me take you on a mental visit until my classroom where I ain’t got no resources. And sometimes I think about how they got us like dogs and horses playing games and education isn’t a flame and I ain’t got no beat man so I’m trying to keep it so tight.”
Veena Hampapur: In 2019, over 30,000 public school teachers went on strike in Los Angeles, for the first time in nearly 30 years. Teachers and their supporters put on red ponchos and marched in the rain. They demanded resources for students and better pay. One unique aspect of LA Unified is that most educators come from communities of color — just like their students. This made the strike personal to teachers like Rudy.
Rudy Dueñas: Education has been a roller coaster for me. I’ve had my really low moments and really great moments, but always those great moments in education involve community.
Participating in the strike was just like a given. Just because of my background. And just fighting for social justice and and just fighting for issues and understanding the issues that were at hand. We were just fed up as educators because of all these conditions that were being put in front of us.
I think that the students know that they’re not getting the top grade education and enhancing and improving the conditions in our schools will give them that sense of “Wow, somebody actually cares about us.”
When I saw them look at us outside and some of them joined us, they knew. They’re like, “Wow, that’s the heart and that’s what we want for our school.” They saw the heart out there marching and hitting the drums and being in the rain.
Veena Hampapur: Rudy understands how trauma, healing, and community building span across generations. He learned from the stories that came before him, and now recognizes his role in connecting with the next generation of youth — youth that face new and renewed struggles in the fight for justice.
Rudy Dueñas: I hope that they take away this idea of when things get rough, you don’t just give up. You actually have to fight for things and it takes a lot of work. But if your fight is righteous then you got to vocalize, you can’t just be quiet about it. You got to speak out. And I think they saw us do that.
They saw and that’s how we learn from other people’s actions. I learned from the ‘68 walkouts. I think they’ll take that with them.
And it is that for adults to lead, but to include the youth with us and then give them the agency to be able to then eventually lead themselves.
There’s so many people at Wilson High School that had been part of my family and have really helped me and held my hand throughout this educational process. They’re so close to my heart and I think that that’s one thing that the strike. When we’re talking about these issues, it’s about building communities. And you saw communities come out together.
All these teachers that are finally feeling that sense of agency and they’re coming out and the striking but remember, community is crucial. Nobody could defeat a community that’s united and we can’t forget that. We got to keep on pushing that.
If you could take anything from the LA, from the strike I saw that beautiful unity and we can’t forget that.
We got to live like life is humanity united in one. See? I’ve been living life for the fear of the gun and sometimes a gun is not a metal one, but sometimes the gun is the pressure they put us on and they try to keep us on a different plane. But I’m telling you man, this mental health issue is driving me insane because we don’t have the right therapist, we don’t have the right people. We just have a bunch of people that think about dollar bills and that’s evil because they talk about profit and wages and talk about how we don’t deserve the raises because a lot of other teachers get paid less than us in other states. But let me tell you man, this is a crazy debate that they try to overrate and they put it in the stories all over this nation and the state and they try to fill all our rate.But the reality is that this debate is one sided cause they got a lot of the resources so they could get their books written and you could start to be cited and talk about like it’s the truth. But I’m getting lost cause I ain’t got a freestyle.
Saba Waheed: During the interview, Rudy’s 12-year-old son Alejandro sat patiently listening. We wondered, what did he think of all of this?
Alejandro: I think it’s amazing how he’s been through these things. Like a lot of bad things are happening that they’re not really being shown or told to the world. I did participate in the strike and I think it was amazing because I saw these all these teachers together, united and they’re fighting for the same thing.
Saba Waheed: A special thanks to Rudy Dueñas for sharing his story. Rudy is working on a play about his brother, so stay tuned for that. And to all the teachers out there – thank you.
Veena Hampapur: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Veena Hampapur and Saba Waheed. Thanks to our show advisor Stefanie Ritoper. Visit our website at reworkradio.org or Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at rework underscore radio.
Saba Waheed: ‘Til next time, rethink rework.
Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.