American Renaissance

Equal but Separate in Lyons

Hispanic, black, and white students at Toombs County High School all will hold their own proms.

Dan Chapman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar. 10

LYONS — The black kids at Toombs County High School will hold their prom at the National Guard armory next weekend. And the white kids will dance, laugh, reminisce and cry in the same building on May 7.

But what about the Hispanic kids? Which party will the children of the Mexican migrant workers attend?

Neither. They’ll hold their own prom.

In what might be a first for Georgia, students from one high school will attend three separate proms. Toombs County’s dubious distinction demonstrates the evolving arithmetic of race in America, where white plus black plus brown doesn’t add up to “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way when Yuri Flores bought a $50 ticket to the white prom in February. She returned later that day with a white girlfriend, Jennifer Hart, who also wanted to buy a ticket. Hart says the White Prom Committee girl wanted to know if her date was white, black or Hispanic. Mexican, was the answer.

“She told me that it was a white prom — not a Mexican prom, not a black prom,” Hart says. “It made me feel mad. That’s not right. I wanted to put my fist in her face.”

Flores, too, was stunned. Hurt. Mad. And, within minutes, determined. The Hispanic/Latino Prom Committee was formed that February afternoon. The Silverado nightclub, on U.S. 1 north of Lyons, will resound May 8 with cumbia, rap, pop and reggae as Latino high school kids in Toombs County and from across east-central Georgia go to the prom.

“This is the land of freedom. It’s supposed to be the land of dreams,” says Anna Rosa Perez, a Toombs High junior with braces and aspirations for a career in Hollywood. “But it’s not equal. We just don’t want to be left out. [Our prom] will show other people if you try to achieve something, you can do good and you can do what they can do.”

Good place to stay

Perez and her family moved from Merced, Calif., to Lyons (which bills itself as “The Friendly City”) in 1998. Long a draw for migrant workers following the growing seasons from Florida to the Carolinas, Toombs County is also famous for its sweet Vidalia onions.

But the migrant workers, Mexicans mainly, decided Toombs was a good place to stay and raise families. The onion-picking season, now under way, gives way to tobacco and row-crop harvests in the summer, followed by onion-planting season in the fall. Hispanics also rake and bundle pine straw year-round. Others work in the few factories or lay concrete, roof houses or run shops and restaurants.

Toombs, where one in four people in the county of 26,469 lives in poverty, is rapidly changing, and not everybody is happy about it.

Andrea Cruz, executive director of the nonprofit Southeast Georgia Communities Project Inc., which advises the region’s burgeoning Hispanic population on social service matters, says her answering machine has been filled with threats and the door to her office plastered with messages ordering her to “go back to Mexico.”

“Obviously they don’t want us around,” says Cruz, a former migrant worker who helped start the nonprofit in 1995. “Yet they need us.”

The population of Hispanic kids at Toombs High has doubled the last few years to 12 percent, with blacks accounting for 31 percent and whites representing 56 percent. White, black and Latino students say racial tensions both flare and smolder at the 769-student school south of town. Flores and Perez say they’ve been called “onion pickers” and “wetbacks.”

Last year, a white student with a Rebel flag bumper sticker on his truck was beaten by black students. The school board now prohibits students from wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the flag and other incendiary motifs.

Principal Ralph Hardy says racism isn’t a serious problem at his school.

“Our kids get along. We have a good student body,” says Hardy, who’s black. “We have a few problems, like everybody else. But it’s minimal.”

Yet the proms, which are not sponsored by the high school or the school system, remain segregated. The Hispanic kids, at least the few who attended past proms, mostly chose the black prom, although some went to white proms, too. Few, though, say they can afford both the white prom ($50 per couple) and the black prom ($40).

Flores, a vivacious 17-year-old whose family left Chicago for Lyons in 2001, chose the white prom this year. (She says the black prom doesn’t last long enough.) But she demanded her money back following the incident with the White Prom Committee girl.

The girl refused to return it, Flores says. So the Latina junior marched to the principal’s office with Perez to demand her $50 and, she says, to ask Hardy if it was OK to form a Hispanic/Latino Prom Committee.

Flores and Perez say Hardy concurred. Hardy says he has no recollection of the talk and that he first learned of the Hispanic prom Thursday.

“It concerns me because I just feel it would be appropriate if everybody could come together and have one [prom],” the principal says. “But I don’t think tradition right now, and history, would allow that to happen.”

Asked if he was going to do something about it, Hardy responded: “I think I’m going to leave it alone.”

That attitude bothers Cruz, the nonprofit director, and Nikki Holliman, who offers students after-school acting and voice lessons in Lyons.

“He’s passing the buck … because this is not, directly, a school function,” says Holliman, who’s black. “By doing this, it’s like he’s saying, ‘We’re not responsible.’ But he does have a responsibility because these are kids in your school. Somebody needs to take the initiative to say this is not right.”

‘Unfortunate and sad’

Lisa Navarette, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington, had never heard of three separate proms for one U.S. high school.

“It’s unfortunate and it’s sad,” says Navarette. “It would be very nice if people could all come together and have one prom. I hope we can work to a day where the school system would encourage that.”

Most white students hanging out along “the strip” — U.S. 280, which links Lyons with Vidalia — downplay the significance of a Hispanic prom.

Justin Story, vice president of the Toombs High senior class, doesn’t believe the prom committee members are racist.

In fact, a week after being denied, Hart was sold a ticket by a different White Prom Committee girl.

Story says the Hispanic students can do what they want.

“It’s their choice,” he says. “It’d be cheaper and more efficient to have one big prom, because it would be school-sponsored. But you can’t please everyone.”

Stephen Foskey, an 11th-grader who’ll attend the Hawaiian-themed white prom, says he gets along with Hispanics and blacks.

“I don’t have any problems with them,” he says, lounging with friends in the Checkers parking lot. “We don’t really care as long as everybody gets to go to a prom. I don’t think we should make a big deal out of it. Some of them probably wanted it like that.”

Flores, Perez and the other Hispanic girls insist they’d prefer a mixed-race prom. They’re welcoming everybody to their gala that will feature DJ Alacran (“the Scorpion”), carnitas, rice and beans and potato salad for $30 per couple.

They estimate the prom will cost at least $2,100. So far, only 35 tickets have been sold, but Cruz advertises the event on the local Spanish-language radio station. The DJ donated his time; Silverado’s owner offered his building.

“We want this to become a truly special evening for them,” says Cruz, who’s helping sponsor the prom.

The prom committee girls haven’t settled on a theme yet. They’re considering a Mexican beach setting or maybe the folkloric spell of a town fiesta. But Flores, an aspiring nurse or social worker with dreams of college, knows her prom will be memorable.

“It’s going to be a positive thing for the community because it shows that not only can blacks and whites do good things, but that Latinos can do good things too,” she says.