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Cultural representation is coming up Roses

As a Black student at Walnut High School from three different cultural backgrounds, senior Leon Rose is determined to succeed, defying the negative stereotypes while also embracing his tricultural identity.

Senior Leon Rose’s story spans three countries, three cultures and three generations. Now, 50 years since his grandmother set foot in the United States, Rose will soon stand as the first male in his family to graduate high school on time, determined to succeed like his grandmother envisioned and transcend the negative stereotypes. 

Rose describes himself as tricultural, having family in the United States, Jamaica and Belize. After his maternal grandmother immigrated from Belize in the 1970s, Rose maintains a connection to Belize through his mother’s relatives, as well as Jamaica through his father’s relatives. However, since Rose lives in the United States, it’s more difficult to keep in touch with his Caribbean family and culture. 

“Growing up here, you don’t really experience the full Caribbean culture. I see some of my American friends and it’s different; it’s a sense of how you carry yourself,” Rose said. “There’s always a sense of growing up and evolving [with culture], but I feel like you need to be in tune to where your roots are and where it came from in the first place.”

Though Jamaica and Belize are both Caribbean countries and share many similarities, their cultures mean different things to Rose. Nonetheless, in the United States, the individual groups merge together to form an unique, intermixed community. 

“Belizeans have a more free-spirited vibe and Jamaicans are more headstrong and rough around the edges. Jamaica is like good times all the time, [whereas] Belize is the place for sightseeing,” Rose said. “The vibe [of the Caribbean culture] is different. There could be a party on the corner, and you can just join in and have fun even if they don’t know you. I feel close to both countries because everyone [from the Caribbean culture] lives together here in California.”

Family is an important part of the Caribbean culture. Because of travel restrictions during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Rose was unable to keep the tradition of visiting his family in Jamaica and Belize for Christmas and New Year’s Eve in 2020. Instead, he resorted to calling them twice a week.

“I hear the stories about how [my family] used to sit around and play with all their cousins as a big family, so it’s like I’m missing out on something that I could have had,” Rose said. “It’s convenient that we have phones and social media, but I can’t form the bond that I would have if they lived in [my] city. It’s not the same.”

Other than his family, Rose connects to his culture best through the music, including reggae and dancehall, which both originated from Jamaica. He also attends events like carnivals and festivals that celebrate the traditional Caribbean holidays with his family and friends. 

“I grew up on all different types of Caribbean music. Music keeps me going; music calms me down. Music is a universal language because it speaks to you in every type of way. It gives you a different emotion for a different song,” Rose said. “[With festivals], we have a community where we all involve each other. We can all share our music and culture together and have a good time. We show that we’re proud of who we are and where we come from.”

Education is also important to Rose’s culture, which is why he attended a private Christian school when he was living in South Central Los Angeles. The private institution was an elementary school, prompting Rose’s family to move to Walnut after he graduated in fifth grade. 

“My mom grew up in South Central L.A. and she decided, growing up, that she didn’t want to raise her kids in that environment. [The move] was a sacrifice because it’s way more expensive, but I think it was for us and our education,” Rose said. “In [the Walnut Valley Unified School District], their motto is ‘kids first.’ They don’t just care about the money or see [students] as achievements; they make sure we do good work and make sure we’re learning. I appreciate that and my family every day.”

Moving to Walnut also meant that Rose went from living in a predominantly Black neighborhood to a predominantly Asian one. It was the first time he experienced being a minority. 

“It was pretty odd because I only knew one person. Immediately I wanted to find someone that looked like me so I could feel at home,” Rose said. “But after a week or two, I had to be okay with me standing out. I’m not the majority anymore, and I thought I probably wasn’t the only kid feeling that way.”

Though Rose did not experience any explicit racial prejudice, he did have difficulty connecting to other students at first. He decided to make friends with other students who were new to the district. 

“I like to make friends and I like to talk to people, [so] it wasn’t really fitting in with others that was hard. What was, though, was establishing the same type of connection to other students,” Rose said. “I was nervous and anxious because I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t grow up out here, but I saw that [the students] were nice and friendly.”

In his freshman year, Rose joined the Black Student Union (BSU) to find a sense of community with students who share common experiences, especially because of racially-motivated standards.

“Some people perceive us based on stereotypes. A lot of people will see a Black person and think that they are troublesome or that they won’t get anywhere because their parents are not there for them, but it’s not like that,” Rose said. “I want to break those stereotypes because we, as a race, are capable of much more than the views that some people have in their heads. That’s why a lot of Black students go above and beyond when it comes to extracurricular activities and academics.”

As a senior, Rose is vice president of BSU. The club welcomes everyone to come learn about the Black experience through presentations and guest speakers. One of Rose’s favorite memories of BSU was when the club heard a speech given by Rosa Park’s daughter-in-law. 

“[The guest speakers] would come out and explain that they [came] from hardships, but at the end of the day, they made it out, and we can do that too,” Rose said. “As long as you look for those opportunities and snatch them, you can achieve your goal in life.”

Especially after being subjected to stereotypes, experiences which Rose finds difficult to talk about, he is determined to succeed. Success, to Rose, means being financially stable enough to support a family, lending to his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. One example of how he is pursuing this goal is through Leon’s Super Juices, a business Rose founded with his parents that functions as part of two food trucks owned by his family in Los Angeles. 

“Working out there, it’s different every day because you never know who you are going to meet. I’ve met celebrities and I’ve met [eccentric] people,” Rose said. “It’s a good experience because I meet a bunch of people and I’m giving them food that they like so they keep coming back. It’s like they’re becoming part of the family.”

 In his academic future, Rose wants to attend a historically black college and university, like Alabama State University or Hampton University. He also wants to become a pediatric nurse, of which 10 percent are Black in the United States.

“I’m going to take it head on and be a part of that 10 percent,” Rose said. “I have multiple paths I want to take in life, so that’s just one of my dreams. I want to have different paths that are all successful.” 

By Cathy Li, Feature editor
Photos courtesy of Leon Rose
Photo illustration by Sherlene Su