By Yadira Betances
---- — LAWRENCE — High School junior Ricardo Rios said he has been underestimated because he lives in “The City of the Damned.”
The reference is to a controversial Boston Magazine article last year in which Lawrence was described as such.
“City of the Damned? I prefer to look at it as the city of the damn proud. City of damned determined. Yes, I am Latino. Soy Latino. But I don’t deserve anything but an equal chance to make it in this world,” Rios wrote in a speech for the Lawrence Bar Association Law Day speech contest this week.
His speech won first place among nine entrants.
This year’s theme was “Realizing the Dream: Equality for All.”
He was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln and Civil Rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
“I am not Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am not President Abraham Lincoln. I am solely an admirer and a listener of their teachings,” Rios wrote. “What they worked for should not have died with them and their impact should continue to resonate. Hopefully this impact is powerful enough to touch you.”
Judge Lynn C. Rooney, First Justice at Lawrence District Court, said she was impressed by the students’ topics, writing and presentation some which did without notes.
“Everybody did a fantastic job. You had a confidence, command and presence about you,” Rooney said.
Rios was one of nine students from Lawrence, Andover, North Andover, Methuen and Salem, N.H., who delivered speeches on issues ranging from gender equality, human trafficking, gay rights and immigration at Lawrence District Court. They were judged on originality, delivery and effectiveness. Each contestant received a $100 scholarship with Rios winning a $500 scholarship.
When his name was announced at a dinner at Salvatore’s, Rios’ mother, Sonia, hugged and kissed him.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “I was praying to God that he may win.”
His aunt Maribel Rodriguez was equally proud.
“I’ve always said he was born with a gift to succeed and he has proven it,” Rodriguez said.
Rios has participated in musical performances and dramatic activities as a student in the Performing and Fine Arts Academy at Lawrence High.
“As a result, he was able to deliver the speech with the emotion that demonstrated and carried forward the personal connection he had with the subject matter,” said his English teacher Mary DeFelice, who helped him.
This was the first speech contest Rios has participated in. He said it took him about four hours to write it.
At Lawrence High he is studying about Rev. King and the Emancipation Proclamation in his Advanced Placement U.S. history class.
“I wanted to look back at history and how it affected equality today,” Rios said. “I wanted to connect it to my own experience because I didn’t feel equal living in Lawrence.”
Rios was born in New York of Puerto Rican parents. His family moved to Lawrence when he was 7.
Other participating students were Victoria Beeber of Andover High; Samantha Fox, Presentation of Mary Academy, Methuen; Sarah King, Methuen High; Soham Kudtarkar, North Andover High; Jamie Shore, Salem High. In addition to Rios, representing Lawrence High were, Yomaris Aponte, Humanities and Leadership; Zachary Marshall, Math, Science and Technology and Teresa Njeri, Health and Human Services.
Shore who will attend Gordon College in the fall took a different approach in her presentation. She wrote a satire where she portrayed herself as a sexist and racist.
“I did it to make a point,” Shore said.
Kudtarkar, a junior at North Andover High spoke about how far America has come in terms of equality. He used the case of U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Rossano Gerald who was racially profiled by police while driving in Oklahoma with son. He was pulled over twice.
“We definitely still have discrimination today,” he said.
During the dinner presentation, Nikki Toeur a refugee from Cambodia and Muoi Lam from Vietnam, spoke about realizing their dreams in the United States. Toeur came to the United States in 1982 after being in several prison camps
Lam escaped Vietnam in 1979 with her brother and his family on a metal boat. While at sea, they were robbed by pirates and later rescue by an Indonesian oil boat. She came to the United States in 1980, got married and has two sons, Alan and George, the latter she named after America’s first president George Washington.
“Freedom is something very expensive and valuable to us,” said Lam, an outreach worker at Asian Center of the Merrimack Valley. “We do not forget where we come from and how lucky we are today.”
“These words remind us that it’s not just a theme, but there are real consequences for people and how it changes their lives,” said Attorney Cynthia Grove Hastings, co-chair of the Law Day Committee along with Attorney Rebecca Martin.
In addition, the Judge Mark Newman, associate justice of the Lawrence Juvenile Court, received the Leadership Award from the Lawrence Bar Association.