Inspired, I kept digging. I found out that my grandfather, a butcher, was in the first group of Latinos in the CIO union. That union that had been white-only until a campaign where African American, Mexican American and European Jewish workers joined together to make history. My grandmother and aunt co-founded the Hispanic Women’s Council, a project that was ahead of its time, promoting women’s civic participation, pan-Latino unity, and women’s leadership in a society that watched shows like “Father Knows Best.”
Having arrived only a few years ago from Buenos Aires, I was getting a profound education about my Mexican family’s experience in the US. The more I learned, the more connected I felt, both to my family, and to the movement for racial justice in the US.
And the connections got even deeper. I remembered a story my great grandmother had told me, about when she hid Zapata’s soldiers in her house in Mexico. The National Army stormed through her door, hunting for the rebels who demanded “Tierra y Libertad” – agrarian reform that would grant the peasants that worked the land the right to own it – “La Tierra Para Quien La Trabaja.” Grandma Lola grabbed the corner of the table to stop her hands from trembling, said a prayer (“Que Dios me perdone!”) and lied right to their faces, saying she hadn’t seen the rebels. In her view, it was a story of moral risk, something she still prayed to be forgiven for. In my mind, it was a story of epic courage, a badge of honor I would hold in my heart!
I guess that’s how it works. Each generation leaves a legacy for the next one to interpret and make their own: a beautiful and imperfect world, a beautiful and imperfect struggle to make that world better. As the great philosopher Franz Fanon said, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” Or, as they say in Buenos Aires, “ubícate!”
That’s the daunting process you face as a graduate, discerning your path as an individual within the collective whole of our community, and of our world.
Did you know that Black and Latino families were the worst hit by the economic crisis, that so many of us lost our homes and our jobs that one in three Latino families now has zero or negative net worth? That the average wealth of a white family is18 times greater than that of a Latino family, and 20 times greater than that of a black family ? 74% of Latinos who drop out of school do so because they have to take care of their families. Our people are facing a crisis, and none of us can fix this by ourselves. Not even the most rich and powerful person can solve the systemic problems that keep our people poor. Because what we need isn’t charity, a one-way exchange, a performance that makes the privileged feel better. What we need is justice, a profound transformation, a collective process among equals, where injustice is an opportunity for solidarity, where we lay down the building blocks for a bottom-up revolution.
As Latinos, we share a culture that deeply values family and community, a traditional and revolutionary system of values that challenges us to take responsibility not only for ourselves and for the impact of our actions, but also to take responsibility for one another. This legacy connects us back to our ancestors, and forward to the future generations.
This legacy pushed me along my own path, as I began working as a caseworker, counseling Latino immigrants in San Francisco’s Mission District about how to keep their homes in the face of intense gentrification, fighting landlords at the Rent Board and Small Claims Court. Every day I saw how our people’s rights and dignity are trampled: from moldy walls that give children asthma to biased court processes where lawyers drown our elders in paperwork, to landlords threatening deportation when people stand up against illegal evictions. Every day I became more and more clear about the need to organize, to build collective power, to build a social movemen just like each generation before me had done. Mentored by movement elders like June Jordan and Bill Sorro, I slowly found my path.
I organized my first tenant union on 16th street near South Van Ness, where 80 Latino families were facing eviction. The landlord was so calculating, so cold, that I thought of him as the Mission District’s Montgomery Burns. He claimed he wanted to do a retrofit but it was just an excuse to kick the tenants out and triple his profits by renting the apartments to the wealthier, whiter tech workers who were flooding into the Mission as the Silicon Valley boomed.
The tenants were almost all immigrants, and the leaders of the tenants union were some fierce women: people like Soledad who even while going through chemo made sure she signed every collective letter to the landlord, people like Maria Inés who struggled with addiction and decided to get clean because inside the tenants union she finally felt like she belonged somewhere, people like Silvia who had a habit of bossing others around and was elected as the group’s spokesperson when we went to the landlord’s office to deliver hundreds of signatures while Univisión cameras waited outside, and people like Aurora, the shy one that had to be pressured into taking the bullhorn but by the third time got to comfortable even bossy Silvia couldn’t get her to stop talking. They stood up for their families, for their neighborhood, and for their community. And they won. At the height of the dot-com boom, when the mission district was quickly gentrifying, these 80 families stood their ground, and not a single one was evicted.
I was hooked. And, more than a decade later, I’m still hooked on people’s power. As the economic crisis got worse, the need for people’s power got even stronger. And so did the need to break down the divisions that keep us weak: documented pitted against undocumented, Mexican against Central American, Latino against African American. I had the honor of merging the Latino organization that built the tenant’s union on 16th street with an African American organization fighting displacement in Oakland. Together we formed a multi-racial, multi-generational organization for economic justice called Causa Justa :: Just Cause. Our name is bilingual to represent both our communities. And our slogan is a simple, but revolutionary phrase that we inherited from the previous generations, and that still holds true today: “La Unión Hace la Fuerza.”
At Causa Justa :: Just Cause I have the opportunity to learn about the Black community’s experience, to think critically about the challenging work of multi-racial unity and learn every day from my mistakes and our collective victories. And every day I get to see that same bravery that I first saw in that first tenant’s union, multiplied by hundreds- from Black grandfathers fighting foreclosure to Latina teenagers challenging big banks. Every day I hope we get closer to building a multi-racial movement, a movement bigger than any one issue or community, a movement too big to fail.
As a college graduate, you have your own unique contribution to make, if you chose to bring your talents to the work of movement building. From the boardroom to the union hall to the church kitchen, it’s going to take all of us to build this movement. Each of us has movement roots to draw on, a legacy that can keep us inspired, connected, and collective. And now you have the opportunity step into the legacy that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, who have told us, just as we will tell the next generation “La Lucha no se Acaba Aquí!”