When the mic opens this month at La Palabra, the long running poetry reading series at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, the new host will be Angelina Sáenz, an award-winning teacher at Aldama Elementary in Highland Park, a published poet and children’s author, an L.A. Eastsider who overcame obstacles to become a master of learning and language – in short, a hometown hero, with a story both instructive and inspiring.
Ms. Sáenz, the daughter of a single immigrant mother from Mexico, grew up around Echo Park and Silver Lake in the 1970s and 1980s, in neighborhoods marked by poverty and gang violence. At the public schools she attended, she was a “nerdy delinquent,” she said – always reading books and writing snatches of prose and poetry, but with a knack for getting in trouble. Once, in 7th grade, a teacher told her she was a good writer, and after that, she never stopped writing. Eventually, she tested out of high school early and enrolled in East Los Angeles College, where she made the honor roll.
She had no way to know at the time, but soon found out that her education up to that point had left her unprepared for what was to come. She transferred from community college to Occidental College in 1994 and was quickly overwhelmed by the academic rigor and high expectations.
“It really showed me the educational inequality,” said Ms. Sáenz, who credits an associate professor at Occidental, Jaime Angell, with helping her to face and overcome the challenges.
The experience also set her on her adult path. She graduated from Occidental in 1998 and, while teaching in public elementary school in L.A., earned a Master’s Degree in Education from Claremont Graduate University in 2001. She joined the faculty at Aldama Elementary in 2007, where she piloted the school’s acclaimed dual-language program and served as its lead teacher until 2013. Honors for her efforts have poured in. She was a nominee in 2011 for a Champions of Change Award, sponsored by the Obama White House. In 2014, she received La Opinon’s national Mujer Destacada Award (Outstanding Woman Award) for her work in education and served on the Teacher Advisory Council of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2015, she was a featured educator on #Latinos Teach, an Obama White House Initiative on Educational Excellence.
Through it all, she has continued to work at Aldama Elementary, where she is the kindergarten Spanish teacher. She has also fostered her love of writing. In 2016, she published Waiting for Luna, a children’s story. She will soon complete a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Otis College of Art and Design, writing a book of poetry for her thesis. When the position to host La Palabra opened up last year, she was a natural choice.
And yet, her response to the opportunity is gratitude. “I am a product of all my mentors,” she said, adding, “This community has given me so much. I hope that I am giving back.”