On May 1, a cluster of Minutemen paraded themselves outside the Mexican Consulate in downtown Santa Ana during the larger immigration marches nearby. Across the street, a jubilant group of second- and third-graders at the Orange County Educational Arts Academy burst into a round of chants. "Mexico!" they squealed, their arms raised high as they twirled and giggled from their playground. "U-S-A!" the much-older-but-just-as-boisterous Minutemen group across the street yelled back, before checking themselves.
When the bell rang, the kids stopped chanting, froze and scampered back to their classrooms. The short-lived exchange, although lively, probably would have been forgotten—unless, for instance, it happened to be caught on tape, posted on YouTube, circulated on MySpace, co-opted by the Minutemen, reported on by a giant newspaper in Mexico and featured on Telemundo and AM talk radio.
This is what happened when amateur videographer/activist Nauicoletl "Naui" Huitzilopochtli took his video and did what so many people with a camera do these days: posted it on YouTube. Now the kids, depending on what kind of website you're on, are being gawked at, downloaded, shunned, loved, praised and gossiped about—all with the backdrop the Senate beginning debate over a new immigration-reform bill.
Such has been the fate of the cute 7- and 8-year-olds from the Arts Academy, who, according to the school (and, perhaps, common sense), were not active participants in the immigration debate, but just kids being kids.
"This is the first I've heard about it," an Arts Academy mom said in Spanish as she listened incredulously to her two daughters recount their versions of the story. One of her daughters, a second-grader, was on the now-famous playground during the now-famous lunch recess that has attracted so much attention.
"Some kids said, 'It's the big march,' and then we went to see what was happening, and we saw that it was across the street," she said. According to her, the lunch attendant climbed the elevated climbing structure to peer over the wall that surrounds the playground. The kids then followed and began chanting while the lunch attendant tried to coax them down. "There was no room," said the second-grader. When she saw the police across the street, she decided to hide in the bathroom with a friend. It is unclear from the video if an adult was on the structure with the kids.
"I think some kids knew what they were saying, but most just got really excited," said one 12-year-old Arts Academy student. She said she and other older students could hear the younger students outside in their classrooms. "Other kids said, 'Why are the kids doing that? Are they crazy?'"
That and much worse according to Minutemen sites galore, which have taken the video as evidence of everything that's wrong with America. "It's nice to see that our future maids and lawn boys are learning a skill," wrote Calcon on Libertypost.org. "BTW for you people unfamiliar with Calif., Santa Ana is a sh*thole filled with illegals and other lowlifes," the post continued.
"The best thing for everyone would be to deport these brats along with their parents," wrote another visitor.
Other sites hail the kids as heroes. "You can't change the soul of child. We should be this strong!" said a MySpace post.
At the center of the kids' notoriety is Huitzilopochtli's video. He's made a hobby of videotaping Minutemen and then posting the footage on YouTube (on the kid vid, he is cheerily greeted by Minutemen women when he arrives at the Consulate). He says he thought since The Orange County Register was photographing the kids, he could post his video. "The cops were there, and I figured if it was a problem, they would have said something," he said.
When the school asked him to remove the video from his site, he declined because "it was already out there and the Minutemen had already copied it." But he never thought it would get this controversial. "I usually get, like, a couple of hundred hits on my videos," he said. "But then from one day to the next, there were thousands of hits. A lot of them were from Mexico."
That's when he discovered that the Mexican newspaper El Universal had run a story with a link to the video. Telemundo followed with a story a few days later, he said, screening the video and interviewing Lupe Moreno, a fervent local anti-illegal-immigration activist.
"It was very disappointing to me that children in this city are not taught loyalty to this nation," Moreno told the Weekly. "I have called to complain and gotten other friends to complain. I think we are going to protest the school."
California Coalition for Immigration Reform chairwoman Barbara Coe has also been vocal about the incident. She is convinced the kids were put up to the chanting by their parents or a teacher at the school. "There's always an adult to get the kids going, and they don't even know what they're saying," Coe said.
Whether the kids knew what they were saying or not, the school contends that no one put them up to it. In a statement released to parents on the school's website, the board of directors said they had "received e-mails indicating that members of the public believe the students were brought to the playground by their teachers, and that the school explicitly sanctioned this demonstration. We wish to assure our school community and the general public that this is not the case."
About three-quarters of the school's roughly 500 students are Latino and about 15 percent are non-Hispanic whites. Board member Kristin Collins said the school had no further comment beyond what has been posted on their site.
"The definition of 'criminal' does not apply to age," said Coe. "I'm sorry, but a lot of them grow up to be gang members, or haven't you noticed?"
A sixth-grader from the Academy stood thoughtfully with his backpack on when asked about the incident. "The Minutemen don't like immigrants. They want more ICE and stuff," he said. "Well," he paused, "it's their choice. They have a right to be there."
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At press time, the video had nearly 40,000 hits and counting—unbeknownst to most school parents and their kids. In the end, the kids may not even be aware of the storm their simple playground play has caused. "I could see how it might be a bigger deal if it were the older ones," said the second-grader's mom, "but these were the little ones. They don't even know what's happening. My daughter just asked me, 'What's illegal?'"