East Palo Alto poet uses public office to uplift community
East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Antonio López pitched in to fill sandbags during rainy weather in early January 2023. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    An East Palo Alto poet is using his elected office to fight for a better future for his community.

    Vice Mayor Antonio López, 28, is working to improve the quality of local schools and create a youth commission to give them a voice in politics. As a poet, López reflects on his culture and the struggles of his community. He envisions himself as a missing puzzle piece, connecting his neighborhood with opportunities and the affluent areas surrounding it.

    López was born and raised in East Palo Alto. The son of Mexican immigrants, his perspective and academic strength led him to lofty heights, yet he never lost sight of who he is and where he came from.

    “It was a beautiful childhood in the sense that I never doubted where I belonged,” he told San José Spotlight. “East Palo Alto was always my home, always will be my home, but definitely there were challenges. From basic things like not having a grocery store.”

    East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Antonio López works to empower youth and his community. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    He recalls his mom walking 45 minutes while pushing a stroller to get groceries. His dad worked as a busboy and later worked two jobs as a waiter to make ends meet. His family received food support from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children as well as the Ecumenical Hunger Program.

    López received scholarships to attend prestigious colleges, earning double bachelor’s degrees from Duke University in global cultural studies and African and African-American studies. He received a master’s degree in creative writing from Rutgers University and a master of philosophy in modern Middle Eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He’s pursuing a PhD from Stanford University in modern thought and literature.

    “For me, it was a very big deal to go to Stanford,” he said. “To say, we belong in that place, too.”

    Voters elected López to the East Palo Alto City Council in 2020. Councilmember Martha Barragan, who appreciates López’s growth mindset, said he’s smart, capable and has a bright future. Councilmember Carlos Romero said with any luck, he can become mayor.

    “It’s being able to work with the collective to get things done for the community,” Romero said. “To get services and access to programs to low-income people of color.”

    López said the beautiful part of East Palo Alto is its multiculturalism, but the quality of education and socioeconomics differ widely in the area. He never felt poor until he attended high school at Menlo School, a private college preparatory school, in Atherton.

    “That was a really pivotal time of my life because I had never seen that level of wealth and affluence,” he said. “I went to all these fancy schools… but I came from this area, so I could feel the difference. I could feel how I’m seen as a different person. Those kinds of memories shaped me.”

    His poetry started at Menlo School, where he felt like an outsider. He said when he wrote an essay in junior year describing his frustration, his teacher told him it was beautiful. It was a life-changing moment.

    “I could shape a sentence in a way that hits people in the gut or makes them cry,” he said. “It was like a superpower.”

    López went on to write award-winning “Gentefication,” a book of poetry about his culture, inequity and life growing up in East Palo Alto. He’s also won poetry awards from Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is a National Book Critics Circle emerging critic fellow.

    East Palo Alto Vice Mayor Antonio López is an award-winning poet. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Early Monday morning, López braved the cold and rain to fill sandbags as water came up to the first floor of apartments on the west side of the city.

    “I’m just trying to do my part… to keep each other safe,” López said.

    East Palo Alto resident Maria Magana, who stopped by to pick up sandbags, appreciates Lopez’s commitment.

    “It’s great to see someone taking initiative, someone from a younger generation making sure East Palo Alto is progressing the way that it should,” she said.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at lorrainegabb[email protected]

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