Golden Warriors helps boys avoid trouble

Golden Warrior participants race to the soccer ball on a chilly Saturday morning after participating in a group field trip.

Story, photos and video by Katrina Fischman, NewsNetNebraska

A few months ago, 12-year-old Francisco Alvis Arizaga didn’t respect his teachers and wasn’t paying attention in class. His teachers called his mother weekly to complain. And at home it wasn’t much better. He was always upset and in a bad mood. His mother didn’t know what to do.

Then she found the Golden Warriors program.

Since enrolling in the program at El Centro de las Americas in Lincoln about two months ago, Francisco has had fewer problems in school. Carmen Arizaga Alvis said the program has helped her deal with her son and has given her information that she didn’t have before on how to handle this stage in his life.

“I can communicate more with him,” she said. “And now he talks to me more.”

The main goal of Golden Warriors is to keep more Latino males out of the Lancaster County juvenile justice system. The program accepts Latino boys in Lincoln, generally between the ages of 14 to 18, who are on probation for minor offenses or who are having problems at home and at school in an effort to prevent them from continuing on that path. It is funded by a grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission and is in its second cycle.

The program centers on concepts of the ancient Native American cultures, such as the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans. It teaches students about their past while helping them to feel a part of American culture by making connections between the groups. The program takes its motto, “We are the sun’s children and our nature is to shine,” from an ancient Toltec message. The concept of four components, such as the four cardinal points, four seasons and four elements of nature, is embedded into the four elements of the program.

“We have these four components which are responsibility, education, knowledge and family,” Program Director Erick Saavedra said. “And all this is very important for all of us. We know our past so that we get conscious about the present, so we can have a better future.”

Saavedra and his wife, Irene, who volunteers in her spare time, teach the boys about the elite warriors of the Mesoamerican cultures, showing the students that the Tiger and Eagle warriors achieved their status not by fighting, but by eliminating inner enemies. They want the boys to see there is an alternative to violence and that a true warrior is in control of himself.

And it seems to be working.

“Before I was a little bit crazy…,” said Miguel Contreras, a program graduate. “If some person told me something, I don’t care; I just go and fight. And now, like I have some experience. And Erick told me that the Mayans, they never like fight. First they talk about it, like what is going on.”

The students attend 12 weekly sessions. About 14 students come each week, some accompanied by curious and supportive parents.

Students Saul Balderas, 12, and Andres Balderas, 13, listen intently to a lecture given by Irene Saavedra about the seven virtues and seven vices.

Each session begins informally with students grabbing a slice of pizza and a pop and chatting with other members. Later, one of the Saavedras gives a short presentation on the topic of the evening, such as the stages of responsibility throughout life. Usually there are activities related to the lesson, such as breaking a piñata to represent the seven vices and seven virtues. At the end of the night, the boys go to the gym and play soccer.

Soccer is the incentive to attend for many of the boys.

“We would play soccer and get some food and everything,” Contreras said. “It was fun because soccer is one of my favorite sports, and that’s why like every time I was there I think it was not only for soccer because I learned something…. I know something now for my country, the people who used to be before and everything. So it’s kind of like fun.”

All the sitting in a classroom can be dull for restless boys. The Saavedras occasionally take them on field trips to enhance classroom discussion. One trip is to the Nebraska State Capitol so that the boys can see the symbolism in the architecture and its relation to their own past. The structure of the Capitol is based on the cross within a square, a concept used in the Aztec, Mayan and Incan cities, which stems from the image that appears when daily and yearly paths of the sun are traced.
It helps them ” to see there is a connection between all of us, even here in Nebraska, that is so far away from all those other cultures,” Irene Saavedra said.

The program is growing. A few weeks ago, the program opened a second chapter at North Star High School after the principal came to El Centro de las Americas expressing interest.  Students participate on Wednesday afternoons and will receive five semester credits upon completion.

Irene Saavedra said her goal is to ultimately develop a program for Latina girls. But right now the center doesn’t have the money or the time, to start the project.

After  12 sessions, students pass through their own rite of passage in a Fire Ceremony. The boys are blindfolded in a partly underground lodge on the outskirts of Lincoln where they sit and meditate, writing what they have learned and need to change in their lives, which will serve as an offering to the fire. Later, they burn their testament as a symbol that they are a new person. The ceremony is kept undisclosed to the participants until the end of the program to “allow them a profound and insightful experience,” Irene Saavedra said.

Though several sessions away from graduating, some of the current students have already taken the message to heart.

“My plans for the future are to finish high school and hopefully go to college so I can get a degree in some kind of business so I can open my own business…” said Jesus Noriega, a participant.

“It’s made me think about what I’ll need to do for myself so I can achieve those goals and what I need to do for the future. And just made me realize, you know, that stuff I have been doing I need to change ‘cause it’s not helping me.”

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