They waited with bated breath, hoping the moment for when all the hard work of practicing and performing their speeches had finally paid off — and it did, despite a global pandemic.

"I watched them in their final round as they were competing in front of the computer, and I was just crying just because I was so happy, because I knew what that meant for them," said Corin Serrano, coach of Santa Ana High School's speech team.

What You Need To Know

  • Santa Ana High School recently won its first National Championship in speech and debate

  • The six-member, all-Latina team won the National Speech Schools of Excellence Award, despite the challenges of competing remotely

  • Since launching in 2016, the program at Santa Ana Unified has grown from 160 students to 1,100

  • The district says the program provides a path out of poverty for many of its students

The group of young women accomplished what nobody else who looks like them had been able to achieve, being the first all-Latina team to win a National Speech Schools of Excellence Award — one of only 20 across the U.S. However, doing it all remotely meant no teammates to cheer for you.

"It was so isolating doing it online that you just kind of lose motivation, and you don’t want to do it anymore," said Anna Cecilia Fierro, an incoming junior.

Not to mention all kinds of distractions.

"Construction, people’s music, and then the WiFi, it was just sometimes too much," said Kassandra Rios, another incoming junior.

"Even though officials were told, 'Don’t discount a students speech if their WiFi goes out,' and things like that, it’s hard not to," Serrano said.

Serrano added that she couldn’t be more proud of her students.

"They’re so passionate, and that passion drives me and makes me happy for them," she said.

Sal Tinajero oversees the speech and debate program for the Santa Ana School District, a program he launched five years ago and one that changed his life when he was a student.

"This broke me out of poverty," he said. "I was able to get college scholarships and that’s how I paid for my education, so our why has always been to break students out of poverty."

Most of the women on this team started their speech careers in eighth grade and go up against some of the most affluent schools in the country.

"They traveled to their first national tournament. You could tell that they were just like, 'Oh my gosh. What am I doing?'" said Serrano. "But now, they walk in like, 'I belong.'"

That helps explain why they have become such a close-knit family. Graduating seniors Gillian Palacios and Guadalupe Guzman were co-captains this year and chose speech topics that were personal.

"In the entertainment industry, we tend to focus more on the pain of people of color, rather than our joy," Palacios said.

"[My topic was] Latina women in education and the different struggles Latina women face when they go into college," said Guzman.

Palacios placed fourth in the nation in original oratory. Her teammate, Destiny Ceja, did the same in dramatic interpretation — and the rest of the team earned enough points to pick up top honors.

"We looked on YouTube for, like, speeches of Latina people or Latino stories, and we couldn’t find anything," Ceja said. "I think it’s really just a privilege to be able to compete on this team."

The women said that what drives is not just about winning, but also representing their school and community. Tinajero noted that 93% of students in the district live at the poverty line, making these kinds of activities critical.

"You’re showing people who never meet people that look like you, who you really are, and at that point we can find commonality and break barriers, and so they wore that as a badge of honor," he said.  

It's proof they can compete with the best, and there’s no debating that.