Dr. Isabel Morales is a world traveler and a history teacher. Photo from Instagram.

Born and raised during a time of gang-gun violence and inequalities in education, a young Isabel Morales would find a safe space at Benjamin Franklin and Robert Louis Stevenson libraries in Boyle Heights.

Now an educator at Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School, an institution that did not exist during her youth, Dr. Isabel Morales  is using her experience and travels across the world to provide the multifaceted education she dreamed of for her students.

Reporter Carmen Gonzalez had a chance to speak with Morales on this journey.

This interview was edited for length and clarity:

BHB: Tell me a little bit about how Boyle Heights looked when you were growing up?

Isabel Morales: I’m talking to you from Mendez High School. This high school did not exist. When I was growing up [in the 90s], this was housing projects, one of my closest friends grew up here.  There was a lot of fear of gun violence, but it was different. It was gang related gun violence, like drive bys and stuff. I’ve seen data where the amount of fear that parents had related to gun violence in the 90s, is similar to what it is now. But in terms of the source of the gun violence, that’s a little different. Now people are a little bit more scared about mass shootings, that really wasn’t a fear we had when I was growing up. We did grow up with more gang related violence. 

It’s very sad to say but it was a normal aspect of growing up. Either knowing people who had survived a drive-by [shooting], or knowing people who had their life taken away in one. I didn’t grow up in the projects, I grew up right across the street from Roosevelt. [One day] my sister had to open the gate for our car to come out [and] we experienced a drive-by. We’re all in the car and my sister’s outside. She was little and wasn’t really sure what to do. And so then we moved out. But then we heard [that] one of the kids that we grew up playing with was shot in his arm and it affected his arm for the rest of his life.

I know that type of violence continues now because I’ve heard from students at Mendez say “oh, we were practicing on the field. And there were shots fired and we didn’t know what to do.”  I almost feel like certain things are repeating because we have seen an escalation and that type of violence lately. I’m sad. I’m sad that students have to experience that again. Because it was definitely scary. But no every day was scary, right? I walked from Roosevelt to Bravo every day. Generally without any incidents. I played with the neighbors. A community vibe to it. 

We ended up in Boyle Heights because this is where my aunt lived. It was like a place with family, cultural resources, so I have good memories of growing up here. I do remember though, being younger and being more of like a nerdy or scholarly kid here and definitely feeling a little out of place. When we moved here, my cousin is telling me where everything is, like all the spots, where to get this food and whatever. And I asked her, “oh, where’s the library?” She’s like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And so, I found it on my own. I found Benjamin Franklin library, and Robert Louis Stevenson library. Those were some of some of my safe havens growing up.

BHB: How would you describe your younger self? What did high school Dr. Morales want to be when she grew up?

IM: My younger self always wanted to be a teacher. That desire came from living in Boyle Heights. Actually, I didn’t go to school in Boyle Heights for elementary school or middle school. I guess my teachers saw potential in me back in those days. The schools have improved a lot. But back in those days, they had a horrible, horrible reputation. My teachers talked to my mom, and they were like, “you’d better put her in a magnet school.” So I was attending magnet schools, but my cousins were all attending the local schools. I would just kind of compare the opportunities I got. The kinds of field trips, and enrichment opportunities, and even just the types of people I had access to. Then I would compare what my cousins were doing. And back in the day, it was almost shocking, they would be bringing home textbooks from the 60s, all torn up and stuff.  That’s actually where my desire to be a teacher came from. I was like, “hey, I feel like my cousins deserve better.” Just because I get on a bus and leave Boyle Heights to get an education. Everybody should have access to a good education. People shouldn’t have to leave their neighborhood for that. 

Isabel Morales in the Netherlands. Photo from Instagram.

BHB: What made you interested in traveling?

IM: That interest developed, maybe when I was 26. I think before I had no curiosity about the world. My world was basically Boyle Heights, the park, the library, my family’s homes. Every now and then we would go to Mexico to visit our family there. That was it. It was like my Boyle Heights world. That was fine. That was good enough for me. I didn’t really have any curiosity to know anything beyond that, and I didn’t feel a need for it.

By the time I was 26, I was already a teacher. There’s a lot of opportunities for teachers to apply to programs that will take you to other countries. The point of it is to expose teachers to more cultures, more countries, just more knowledge. The teachers will come back and then share that with the students, right? Helping the students be more curious about the world, be more open minded about different countries, different cultures, different languages. I think a lot of these programs exist partly because people from the United States, despite the privilege and the wealth, a lot of them don’t leave the country. People outside of the United States know a lot about us, and are just a little bit more globally aware than American people are. 

The first program I applied to took me to Costa Rica. I was very surprised to find out that I was accepted. It was basically all expenses paid trip. That was my very first time ever, being in a rainforest type of environment. Seeing volcanoes, being in hot springs. These are things I never even dreamed about. I’d never even considered it. My mind was still just a little bit limited. I didn’t know what else was out there. I think that first experience just made me more curious. I was like, “Whoa, that was so cool.” Seeing all these animals and seeing all this nature. Before, honestly, I didn’t think I cared about it. I was just really comfortable in the streets and my sidewalks of Boyle Heights. That was home to me, that was comfortable. It was my first experience in Costa Rica. Just seeing what nature and Earth had to offer, then I was like, “All right, I want to continue this.” 

On that trip, I met more teachers. They were talking to me about places they’ve been. I think what helped was one of the teachers I met. He was from Lynwood and he was Latino. I felt like I connected with him, because we just understood each other and where we came from. He was telling me about a trip he had done through another organization. I think the fact that he was talking to me about it, it made it feel like it was doable, because I’m like, “Well, this guy’s like me, right?” He grew up a little sheltered. Not going on family vacations to all sorts of locations around the world. But now he’s doing it. Now he’s encouraging me to do it. I applied to the program he told me about, and I also got in and so that was a trip to Brazil. I got to see an anaconda in real life. Then I was just like, “dang, these are things I never would have imagined. Little me could never have even imagined that I would be here one day, or be seeing these things.” 

Now that I’m actually doing it, it makes me want more. Then being able to come back and show pictures to students or tell them stories. We have a culture, I think, where we’re really taught to be humble. And if you do talk about this, sometimes people are like, “man, you’re bragging. Oh, you think you’re all that since you’ve been around the world.” I’m very clear and explicit about the fact that I’m sharing this with you not to brag about what I’ve done, or where I’ve been, but actually to show you that this is an opportunity and an option for you. The world can be something that you can explore at some point.

“We have a culture, I think, where we’re really taught to be humble. And if you do talk about this, sometimes people are like, “man, you’re bragging. Oh, you think you’re all that since you’ve been around the world.” I’m very clear and explicit about the fact that I’m sharing this with you not to brag about what I’ve done, or where I’ve been, but actually to show you that this is an opportunity and an option for you.”

BHB: How many countries have you visited? Which country has been your favorite? 

IM: I’ve visited over 40 countries. I had a personal goal that I wanted to visit 40 countries before I turned 40. I believe my 40th country was Switzerland, which is where my brother in law lives and works. My favorite country? I really love my experiences in Asia. I got to go to South Korea and I got to go to Vietnam. I got to go to Cambodia. As a history teacher, those are places that have experienced war, Cambodia has experienced genocide. I’ve been to these sites where a lot of devastating things happen. I just kind of have that historical and emotional connection to them. Some of these events, like the genocide in Cambodia, people are still alive, remember that time period. I don’t know, something about it, humbles me. And I’m like, “dang, there’s people throughout this whole world that have lived through a whole lot of messed up stuff. And are moving forward in their lives.” I have found those experiences to be very special. Very eye opening, very educational, very humbling.

BHB: How do you deal with homesickness?

IM: I actually never experienced it, maybe because some of my trips were short enough, a two week trip, I know I’ll be home soon. I think the first time I actually experienced it was during quarantine times. I am married to somebody that lives in another country. Since we had the opportunity to work remotely, I was actually working from Europe. I think because I was there for so long, and because I didn’t know when I was gonna come back. That’s finally when I started to feel homesick. Mostly, it’s very cultural. I miss seeing Latino people. I miss even just American stuff, like American bacon is just different from bacon you get in other places. I missed bacon. I missed doughnuts, [it’s] not like you can get them anywhere. It was that experience of not knowing when I would return home, and just really missing my comforts of home. Like my own friends, I was in a small town where people don’t really make new friends because all their friends, they’ve had them since elementary school. I was like, “oh my god, I’m gonna be here for so long. And I don’t have friends. Like my only friend is the one person I know here, which is my husband”. 

I would get a little frustrated going to stores and just wanting something that I considered basic, like cilantro. That’s not considered a regular everyday ingredient. Just those things that I’m like, “man, it would be so easy to find cilantro in Boyle Heights.” So how did I deal with it? Well, I knew that eventually I would be home, I made a list. Anytime I felt like I missed something, let’s say a food item, I pulled out my phone. I had my running list of things I miss or things I’m going to eat immediately when I get home. Rather than be sad or upset that I couldn’t have my bacon or my donut, I would just kind of put it on this list and be like, well, I will have it. I look forward to the day that I will have it. Also conversations with people from back home. Who then also we’re going through their quarantine thing.

BHB: You’ve been to 40 countries and at some point in your career you were a school administrator – why come back and teach in Boyle Heights? 

IM: That’s something that I think about. I don’t spend summers here. I leave, I go travel places. I’m married to someone that lives in Europe. I do have the option of living there. I remember, I came back and I showed students pictures of these rivers and castles. I was like, “I’ve been to all these places, but this place, where you are, Boyle Heights, this is what I choose for myself, this is where I choose to be.” They were all like “Why?” I know the reason is that this is where I feel I actually have a sense of purpose. There’s jobs available out there, I could teach at an international school to children of diplomats, or something. I could teach at a military base. And I do like teaching and I do like teaching history. I went into teaching for a very specific reason, right? So this goes back to why I wanted to be a teacher. It was seeing my family from Boyle Heights not have access to the things I had access to at my magnet schools. I was like, “if I get a job teaching anywhere else, I’m not fully fulfilling my purpose, because my purpose was to provide that access to the community where I grew up.” That’s just where I feel most complete and most fulfilled.

Isabel Morales at the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC. Photo from Instagram.

BHB: What do you wish LA or Boyle Heights would adopt from the places you travel to?

IM: I didn’t realize until I stepped away from Boyle Heights every now and then, that being in Boyle Heights comes with a lot of stress. It’s getting more and more crowded, it’s expensive, right? If people are trying to find an apartment or something to rent, it’s expensive. You deal with the stress of parking, parking is so limited. That creates stress with neighbors, it creates conflict Then you have neighbors blocking the streets with trash cans. Neighbors fighting and calling the cops on one another. Or once you find your parking, then you’re like, well, now I’m not going to leave. So I didn’t realize the amount of stress that I have normalized. 

I wish that LA, and Boyle Heights would really prioritize calm, peaceful, safe, leisurely living. In some of the places I’ve been, they shut down on Sundays. I’m not necessarily advocating for that, because sometimes I was a little bored. But the kind of the value behind that is, everybody needs time to not work. Everybody needs time to be with friends or family or spend time doing something you enjoy. I do like that. Two places to prioritize, you being a person and you being a healthy person. Just affordable health care is a thing that in many countries,  they’ve come to realize that’s essential. And I know when I’ve been around in other places, they’ll literally ask me “you all let people die because they’re poor? Because they don’t have money for whatever the treatment is?” I’m like, “Now when you put it that way, it sounds really horrible. But yeah you know, healthcare requires money.” Just things like that. 

I’m identifying things that are essential for humans, such as healthcare, but even things I didn’t even leave the country for. I went to Alaska, but it almost felt like a different country. I was just around nature, around the water, and by these mountains. I felt a sense of the fresh air. I’ve been to places where the air is really, really clean, and it just feels different to me. I feel like I have to breathe differently. That’s something I never realized. Maybe it’s a little harder to breathe in a very congested urban area.

 Also the inner peace that I felt, I was like, “wow, I really like this feeling. I feel so calm.” I wish that all of us in Boyle Heights could feel this. I wish that we could all feel this sense of just like calm and some of it comes from knowing that your basic needs are being taken care of, some of that comes from breathing fresh air and being around green and trees. Those are some of my wishes.

BHB: What advice do you have for residents– young and old– who want to leave the community but are hesitant? 

IM: Culturally, or maybe the way we were raised by just family expectations and obligations, like being a very family oriented culture, I know that there can be a lot of guilt or feelings of being selfish for wanting to pursue one’s dream of traveling or dream of going to college out of state. I’ve definitely felt that, as a senior, and I was weighing where I should go to college. As the oldest in my family, I stayed. And I was like, “Oh, it’s my responsibility to be close to home, right? Just in case something happens, in case my sister needs me or my mother needs me.” So I made the decision to stay locally, where home was just a 30 to 40 minute drive away. I kind of regretted that decision, I feel like it limited me.

“This is where I feel I actually have a sense of purpose. There’s jobs available out there, and I do like teaching history. [But] I went into teaching for a very specific reason. This goes back to why I wanted to be a teacher. It was seeing my family from Boyle Heights not have access to the things I had access to at my magnet schools. I was like, “if I get a job teaching anywhere else, I’m not fully fulfilling my purpose, because my purpose was to provide that access to the community where I grew up.’” 

When I talk to other people who are making those decisions about college, or travel or whatever, I do remind them that like, “Okay, well, I went through it, and I stayed for all the same reasons. But did that really change my family situation?” My family wasn’t any less crazy, because I was close by. They’re gonna go through their things, whether I’m close, whether I’m far. If you leave, you can always come back. The community is here. Yeah, the community changes over time, but it’s here, home is here. Whether it is for a summer, or the four years of college, or two years, or however long it is, or a study abroad thing. It’s worth it to try and see how it is, see how you feel over there. Maybe it opens and awakens whole new things about you that you didn’t know, it helps you realize things about yourself. It helps identify new passions and things, new directions in your life. And that’s a very cool experience that everybody deserves.

If it’s like fear or guilt or a sense of obligation that makes us hesitant or keeps us here, that’s okay, that shows you’re a good person. You care about people, your family, your community. You can always return to it. I always have. I go off and do my adventures. I learn new things. And then I come back and I teach my family about it, and my friends about it, and my students about it. Now, I don’t have any regrets. I do have regrets about where I chose to go to school, or the fact that I didn’t study abroad when I was in college, I do regret those things. But I don’t regret leaving for a summer, or leaving for a semester or whatever.

BHB: Where is Dr. Morales off to next? 

IM: Oh, I’m so excited. It’s always been my dream to go on a safari specifically in East Africa. I mentioned that I’m into history. I’m combining my love of nature and animals and history and going to East Africa this summer. I’m gonna go to a few countries. I’m gonna go to Rwanda, Uganda. That’s where I’m gonna do silverback gorilla trekking. I’m gonna do some safaris as well. Hopefully I’ll see some, I don’t know, lions, giraffes, zebras. I’m gonna go to Tanzania, and Kenya. I’m excited for the safari park. I’m also excited though, because when I’m in Rwanda, I will be visiting some historical sites. They had a genocide. Again visiting these places, just makes me feel just more in touch with things that humans go through. Things that humans are capable of and things that I hope we do not repeat. It kind of helps me recommit myself to my values, the kind of world I want to see, the kind of world I want to help create. What I want to teach my students about the kind of world they want to live in.

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Carmen González

Carmen González is a former Boyle Heights Beat reporter, a 2019 graduate of Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School and a student at Cal State Long Beach. González is a fellow with the CalMatters...

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