Méndez High School principal Mauro Bautista is often seen by students in the neighborhood, shopping at the Northgate supermarket on Soto Street or eating at Tacos El Pecas, near Salesian High School. Bautista enjoys the strong sense of community in Boyle Heights.
“I love living in the same neighborhood where I work,” he said. “It’s also a reminder for me to be incredibly respectful in my engagements with the students and the families.”
Bautista became the first assistant principal of Felícitas & Gonzalo Méndez High School when it opened in 2009, and was then named principal in 2011.
He was born in Mexico and moved to Boyle Heights when he was five years old. His family moved around a lot but always stayed within the community. Bautista took education courses at UCLA and earned his teaching and principal credentials at the university’s School of Education & Information Studies. He taught elementary school and eventually became principal at Méndez High.
“I wanted to become a principal to make a positive impact in the community, in the lives of young people, and it’s just a lot of fun,” he said.
Reporters David Garcia, Sofia Peña, Edwin Perez and Destiny Ramirez talked to Bautista about how he got his position at Boyle Height’s newest high school, and what he’s doing to keep students there safe and well educated.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Boyle Heights Beat: Why did you decide to become a principal?
Mauro Bautista: In order to answer that, I have to answer why I decided to become an educator. I grew up in [Boyle Heights]. I was very fortunate to get an opportunity to go to a four-year college, and while I was at UCLA, there was something about me that wanted to come back and give back to the neighborhood, but I didn’t know exactly how that would look like. And then at UCLA, I took a couple of education classes that I really liked. Through that I realized, “Oh, I could be a teacher.” I didn’t expect to come back necessarily to Boyle Heights, but I thought I can go back to a neighborhood like Boyle Heights and give back in that way. And when I looked for jobs, I found a job at Hollenbeck Middle School, and so I felt very blessed.
While I was at Hollenbeck, one of my principals asked me if I would be interested in what’s known as an out-of-the-classroom position, or a coordinator position. She gave me that opportunity, and I did that for a few years. And then I went and I got my administrator credential. And then when Méndez opened in 2009, I applied to be assistant principal here. And I was very fortunate to get the job. So I’ve been principal here, this is my 13th year. So very similar to why I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to become a principal to make a positive impact in the community, in the lives of young people. And it’s just a lot of fun.
BHB: Many of us have seen you outside the school shopping in the community. Why do you choose to live in the community you work in?
MB: I was born in México and I arrived here in Boyle Heights when I was five years old. At that time, my parents and I lived out of apartments throughout the neighborhood. I lived on the corner of Euclid and Whittier, I lived on Cummings, I lived on Forrest, I lived on Wabash. I’ve lived on Marengo. And so as we moved around to different parts of the neighborhood, I always enjoyed the strong sense of community that exists here. People that grow up or live in Boyle Heights for a while, get a lot of pride being from Boyle Heights. Plus also having been born in México, and my parents, of course, immigrating here, there’s a lot of Boyle Heights that reminds you of México, if you’re from México. You know, the panaderías, the aguas frescas, the tacos, everything. And I’m not even talking about the tacos when you go into a restaurant, I’m talking about the taco stands all over the neighborhood.
So when I went to college, I thought, “man, I would love to come back and buy a house here.” I graduated college in 1999 and I bought my house here in the neighborhood in 2004. If I wanted to buy that house now, it would be so much more complicated because the houses are just so much more expensive now. I went into college, I envisioned myself coming back and I was very fortunate to come back. So yeah, after school, on the weekends, I see many students. Not just current students, but older students, even from Hollenbeck. They’ll stop me and they’ll say “Mr. Bautista!” I’m like, “Hey, how you doing?” And they’re like, “Do you remember me?” Most of the time, I don’t remember names. I remember your face. I don’t remember your name. And they’ll tell me, they’ll let me know. “I had you back in 2003. You were my teacher back in 2005.” Of course, the Méndez students are easy to remember because they’re more recent.
But yeah, I love living in the same neighborhood where I work. It’s also a reminder for me to be incredibly respectful in my engagements with the students and the families because I’m going to see them. Even in a complicated situation, let’s say I’m engaging with a family whose kid has gotten into two or three fights, as an example. As I’m engaging them, I’m trying to remind them of the expectations, but doing so in a very respectful way because I know that we’re neighbors. So once we hit the streets, we’re gonna run into each other, we want to be able to have a very respectful engagement as neighbors, right? No longer as principal and parent and student but as neighbors.
BHB: Many Méndez students have seen you walking around sweeping. Is there a purpose to that?
MB: Obviously I’m older than all of you. I grew up in the 80s. Some of the stereotypes about Latinos in general, and Mexicans, were a little bit more like in your face. So one of the stereotypes around that time was that Mexicans are dirty. Like, you go into Mexican neighborhoods, and they’re just dirty. I certainly don’t believe that and I believe that we together can work to keep the campus very clean and beautiful. And I think our students do a great job. We usually have an issue with just a few pockets, where we just remind students, “please throw your trash away, please throw your trash, please throw your trash away.”
You don’t want to walk around a dirty campus, right? I do think the campus is a representation of the school culture. And if we have a very clean campus, it just represents that we have a really positive school culture, that the students and the adults care about taking care of the campus as if it was [their] own house.
BHB: You said you came from an immigrant background. What kind of help and support did you need to graduate from college?
MB: Well, the biggest support that I got was the last amnesty that this country offered. Back in 1986 the government allowed any immigrant who came here before 1982 to apply to get their residency, and then apply to get their citizenship. We got here right before 1982. That’s the biggest hope we got because I arrived and my parents arrived as undocumented. And then through the 1986 amnesty, we were able to get our residency and then our citizenship, so by the time I got to high school, I qualified for all the financial aid.
One of the biggest challenges with our undocumented students is – well, not so much in California, because California does offer some financial aid. But when California didn’t offer that financial aid for undocumented students, and most of the country doesn’t, then you graduate and you want to go to college, you want to continue your education, and you don’t get any help to pay for it. And so it becomes incredibly, incredibly complicated. So I think as a as an immigrant, that is probably the biggest help. That ‘86 amnesty.
When you look at the thousands of immigrants, and I’m not just talking about Latino immigrants, but Asian immigrants and immigrants from other countries, who took advantage of that, it just demonstrates that the great majority of immigrants are law abiding. And they give to this country a ton, in language, culture, traditions and diversity. In general, immigrants just… they give so much to this country, and I hope that sometime soon, this country offers another amnesty to help all of the immigrants that have come after 1986.
“I love living in the same neighborhood where I work. It’s a reminder for me to be incredibly respectful in my engagements with the students and the families because I’m going to see them. Once we hit the streets, we’re gonna run into each other, we want to be able to have a very respectful engagement as neighbors, right?
BHB: I don’t know if you knew this, but only 8% of high school principals nationwide are Hispanic. Seeing that there weren’t a lot of Hispanic principals, was this a motivation for you when you were growing up.
MB: I think definitely. When I went to school, back in the 80s, the composition of the teachers that I engaged with, looked a lot less like me. And so growing up in the 80s and early 90s, there was definitely a motivation to get through high school, hopefully go to college, to also represent those of us that were from an immigrant background, from Latinx background, from a low-income background. Fortunately now, when you go to a lot of schools here in LAUSD, like you go to Utah Elementary, the principal is a Latinx principal. So now there’s a lot more representation. I think even before me, like in the 70s, the Latinx next people that made it to assistant principal or principal that paved the way for us, they had it even tougher. So I thank them for opening the doors and now, here in LAUSD, a lot of the leadership now is Latinx , so it’s a lot more opportunities.
BHB: Coming back to the immigrant topic, living in an immigrant community, what resources does Méndez provide for immigrant students and their families?
MB: Because many of us are immigrants, ourselves or our parents are, I’m talking about the adults on campus… we can certainly empathize with the challenges that immigrants offer. One of the supports that we offer here is we do have a small club for what we call international students, for students that just arrived. We try to meet with them once a month and offer different types of support… try to encourage them to participate in the extracurricular activities. Like for example, you guys got involved in Boyle Heights Beat. We try to tell them, “Hey, there’s these clubs, there’s these teams. There’s this, or music, original performing arts program.” Trying to get them involved so that they feel more connected to the school.
We have teaching assistants in some classes that can help translate the work that has been given to them. That’s for some of our immigrant students who are in more dire situations. For example, this afternoon, I was engaging with one who lives in a shelter. We do offer some financial resources, not that we give them money, but we’re able to, for example, get them backpacks, get them school supplies, those type of things.
BHB: Méndez has a lot of murals showing Latino empowerment. How does this public artwork help inspire students?
MB: As you know, when you walk the streets of Boyle Heights, there’s murals everywhere, beautiful murals, historic murals. I grew up seeing them. Unfortunately, one of the things we have in the neighborhood is tagging, but for the most part the murals don’t get touched. That always, as a young kid, impressed me, that many of the murals wouldn’t get tagged on, some do but most don’t. And so becoming principal at Méndez over the years, we would do one mural, and then there’s an opportunity to do another mural. And then another opportunity to do another mural.
You’ve probably seen the themes, there are a lot of Jaguars everywhere. One of them of course is our own school, we have images of Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez and Sylvia Méndez to pay respects to our namesakes. I love the color and the message that it brings. Our two most recent murals are the Boyle Heights mural coming out of the cafeteria, it’s in black and white, I really liked that mural as a reminder of the neighborhood that we represent, and then in front where the football team does weights, we did a strength mural. That was more of a homage to the football team, since they’re always there, lifting weights, so we put strength as a mural.
BHB: Méndez was originally created to help manage the student population at Roosevelt. How has the school been able to establish its own identity?
MB: I think one of the challenges very early on was to establish an identity. The very first group of students that came to Méndez were ninth graders who were starting their high school career, but then also we picked up 10th and 11th graders who started at Roosevelt. Some of the early messaging from those students that started at Roosevelt was, “Yeah, we come to Méndez but we’re Rough Riders.” They had that connection to Roosevelt. So it took a couple years, just getting some basic, high school identity off the ground.
The very first classes selected our school colors, selected our mascot, and then getting the logos off the ground, establishing our own traditions. Now, the incoming class, would have been born in 2009, the year we opened. So now you got students who were born with the school open, as far as they know, there has always been a Méndez. And now we have a lot of siblings and cousins, whose older family members came to Méndez, now you have more of a Méndez connection. Now I think our identity is a lot stronger. We’re Méndez jaguars and we’re proud to be Méndez jaguars. You joined the cross-country team, then you’re gonna win the city titles (laughs).
BHB: On July 11, two people were shot outside Méndez. About a week later, one woman was killed and another woman was injured in a shooting at a school. How do you feel about the violence happening around campus? And what have you done to ensure student safety?
MB: One thing that is very true is that a school is very much connected to the community. In other words, they’re not separate. You can’t run a school and say, what happens here in the school has nothing to do with the neighborhood but rather, the positive things that happen here flow out to the neighborhood and the positive things that happen in the neighborhood flow into the school, and the other way around. If there’s challenges in the neighborhood, then they flow into the school. My understanding is that those two shootings involve gang affiliation. Unfortunately, one of the things that is true about Boyle Heights is there’s a lot of gangs in the neighborhood. And when that violence is happening out there, it could happen really close to the school, or it could even flow into the school.
Last year was unlike any other that we’ve had here, we had a ton of fights. This year is more normal, they haven’t had a single fight. That is what we expect, but last year was wild. A lot of those fights were due to affiliations. Even if we were able to control it for a bit here, something would happen out there and the next day it would just flow back in here.
Some of the stuff that we did this year, we did a much better job of getting the expectations out early. Like, “Hey, here’s our expectations. This is what we expect when you come to this campus.” We have a lot more supervision now, [we wear] yellow vests, so we’re visible. Everyone’s carrying radios. We limited the exits so we can better supervise the dismissal and we’ve called LA school police to help us supervise outside. They can’t always come but when they come, it’s helpful because at least there’s a police presence. Those are some of the things that we’ve done. We’re certainly not oblivious to it, we know what’s happening and we’re trying to do our best to make sure that when you come to school, you feel good. You feel safe.
BHB: There’s been an effort to defund the school police, and instead invest the money into community alternatives. How do you feel about this?
MB: Well, I think school, especially coming out of the pandemic, can certainly benefit from social emotional support. So that would be like a psychiatric social worker, [or] an attendance counselor that can work with our students who aren’t coming to school. A school climate advocate, whose role is to help support any positive school activities. But the school police is needed. After school, we call school police when we have some activity outside, and when they come it helps. I do think the extra funding for the social emotional service is good and needed. But we got to figure out a balance, because when stuff does happen, we do call the police. And then if there’s no police, and they don’t come, then we’re kind of stuck. And so I think we got to find a good balance of both.
BHB: Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
MB: I want to say that I’m very proud of our students and Méndez High School. You know, we’re a very small school, physically we’re not big and student body wise, we’re not big. We only have 750 students, but we have a very robust program. We have one of the largest [Advance Placement] offerings in the district, almost 25 APs. So that gives the students an opportunity to really come out of Méndez very competitive for the most prestigious universities.
Some of our other programs are super strong, our athletic program, super sharp. Right now girls’ volleyball is doing outstanding, the girls flag football team is doing great. And then we have a very strong visual and performing arts program. Right? We have strong folklórico, strong mariachi. And so although we’re small, the school is outstanding because of our students and our teachers and our staff.
We have outstanding students and we have teachers that are putting a lot of time and energy to support students. I’m just very proud to be the principal of Méndez High School and trying to be here as long as I can.