East San Jose’s political power is rising — a movement years in the making
The Latino/Latina community, from government officials to heads of nonprofits, came together in East San Jose to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a Latino/Latina to the U.S. Senate. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

East San Jose’s political power reached new heights in 2020 — and it keeps rising.

Local leaders harnessed that power to fight for immigration reform, grow their base in local politics and convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill Kamala Harris’ Senate seat last month. Padilla is the first Latino senator for the state.

“When representation matters and you see someone like you in that position, it gives you a sense that we’re doing something right,” said Lennies Gutierrez, chair of the Latino Leadership Alliance. “And we need to keep going.”

Gutierrez said COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on minority communities and the fight for racial justice highlighted the need for communities of color to make their voices heard.

San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco and the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley joined other Latinx leaders at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in November to lobby Newsom to choose a Latino for the seat.

“It made a huge statement… because of the activation of people in the area,” Gutierrez said.

Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley President Gabby Chavez-Lopez and Gutierrez also joined a Zoom call with the governor, along with 32 other Latinx organizations statewide, to make the push.

“I haven’t really seen or experienced anything like that before, so it was really exciting,” Chavez-Lopez said. “It proves not only externally, but even to ourselves that we can work together to get things done. I see a lot of promise.”

Despite this progress, East San Jose has not traditionally had a seat at the table. One collective decided to create its own table.

Four East San Jose community nonprofits came together in 2018 to form the Si Se Puede Collective. It includes groups like Amigos De Guadalupe Center for Justice and Empowerment, Grail Family Services, School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza and SOMOS Mayfair.

“We tried to claw our way to that table in the past and nothing happened,” said Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe. “Having people from the community speak their truth — that’s how we’re going to change things. We are the experts of our own community. We understand the issues because we live those issues. In the next three to five years, you’re going to see a different East San Jose. We’re not going to settle for anything less than equity.”

Maldonado said progress takes grassroots community organizing and coalition building from the bottom up. This, she said, is how leaders can solve multi-generational issues keeping East San Jose families in poverty.

The Si Se Puede Collective joined forces with Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren in November to demand support for immigration reform from the new Biden administration. It demanded local officials sign a list of demands, including creating a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, ending ICE raids, reuniting families of children being held in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border and providing COVID-19 relief funding.

“Our moment is now to rise up as one community,” said Camille Llanes-Fontanilla, executive director of SOMOS Mayfair at the news conference. “Together, we demand policies that recognize people as full human beings with dignity and self-determination.”

The rise in East San Jose’s political power has been building for years.

For the first time in history, the San Jose City Council has five Latinx councilmembers — commonly called the Latino Caucus — and they have advocated for policies such as creating an equity fund to boost vulnerable neighborhoods, stronger sick leave policies and ensuring equity in the city’s redistricting process.

The Latino Caucus also voted against putting a strong mayor measure on the 2020 ballot, which would have granted Mayor Sam Liccardo more powers and extended his term by two years.

Three of the five Latinx members, Carrasco and Councilmembers Sylvia Arenas and Maya Esparza, represent parts of East San Jose.

The growth in power and representation comes from years of preparation. Gutierrez said neighborhood Latinx organizations have trained community leaders for years — and now it’s coming to fruition.

“There’s a pipeline and what you’re seeing is the pipeline is starting to work,” Gutierrez said.

The Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley’s leadership program teaches young Latinas between the ages of 19-29 leadership and civic engagement skills. The Latino Leadership Alliance’s leadership training includes navigating political policy and coalition building.

Another local nonprofit, The Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley, trains Latinos to serve on nonprofit boards.

“Part of our job is to elevate those voices,” Gutierrez added. “And now you see these emerging leaders that have had this training through nonprofits and through life.”

And this is just the beginning for East San Jose and its political prowess.

There are many big fights on the horizon, including the end of an eviction moratorium that could force renters to lose their homes and the continued rise in COVID-19 cases, particularly in East San Jose neighborhoods. Gutierrez said immigration, COVID-19 and education will be future issues taken up by the Latinx community.

“Just because we have representation doesn’t mean our work ends,” Gutierrez said. “We have to keep going and keep pushing even harder. Just because he’s a person of color is in the U.S. Senate doesn’t mean he’s off the hook.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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