San Jose Legends: East Side matriarch Blanca Alvarado fights on for justice
Blanca Alvarado points to a retirement gift she received from Santa Clara County. Photo by Eugene Luu.

Editor’s Note: San Jose Legends is a new monthly series that tells the remarkable stories of the historic and legendary people who have helped shape and transform our city.

When life gives Blanca Alvarado lemons, La Madrina — the godmother — of East San Jose, zests them for cake.

While harvesting lemons from her backyard tree may not be as thrilling as breaking barriers as the first Latina San Jose councilmember and county supervisor, the act helps the 89-year-old political champion pass the time during quarantine.

Baking serves only as a brief intermission from her greater life’s work of ensuring equity for San Jose residents. She said her political titles, while historically significant, don’t define her success.

“What mattered was that I was in a position where I could advance my primary objective and mission in life: to be one for all and all for one,” she said. “I’ve always been more than a person who achieved a first — I was a person who achieved the power and the ability and the support of a community to do some good things in the world.”

Rita Duarte Herrera with Blanca Alvarado in Alvarado’s home.

Alvarado devoted her life to fighting for marginalized and underrepresented communities in San Jose’s East Side — which has a majority Latino population — earning her the title of East San Jose’s “godmother.”

“A godmother represents love and protection,” said Alvarado’s longtime friend Rita Duarte Herrera. “The godmother is loyal and takes care of you for all of your life.”

Breaking barriers

In 1978, Alvarado served on a charter review commission which recommended San Jose shift from an at-large voting model to district elections to boost representation for minority neighborhoods. Voters narrowly approved the change.

Alvarado in 1980 then won election to the San Jose City Council in District 5, which encompasses East San Jose. She said the district was riddled with social injustices including poverty, abusive landlords and a lack of good schools.

“It took me 14 years to take on all of these issues, and to eventually have a voice and a supportive City Council that recognized the discrepancy between Willow Glen and Almaden and East San Jose were so severe, that they were willing to help cure some of the ills of past decision making,” she said.

Alvarado became the city’s first Latina vice mayor and was elected to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in 1994, where she led the effort to create the first children’s health insurance program and fought for Latinos disproportionally incarcerated in Santa Clara County. Blanca Alvarado and José Hernández Middle School was named in honor of her advocacy.

Blanca Alvarado School in San Jose is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Eugene Luu.

“She’s guided by this love ethic,” Duarte Herrera said. “The woman doesn’t stop. She’s generous with her time and her information, her history —financially generous. She’s helping people, supporting people, guiding people.”

The fight continues

While much progress has been made, many social injustices continue today. East San Jose, for example, has the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the county and the lowest vaccination rates due to misinformation and distrust.

Most recently, Alvarado led a decades-long fight to improve local schools by supporting candidates she believes will strengthen Alum Rock educational programs.

“We know that in areas like East San Jose, the road to success starts with a good education,” she said.

Alvarado retired in 2009, but is still heavily involved in politics. She praised a recent decision to close Reid-Hillview Airport — a small municipal airport that has sparked concerns from East San Jose residents about noise, lead contamination and pollution. The land could potentially be used for more affordable housing.

Countless East Side residents voiced their concern about the airport and the neighborhood’s political power is rising in recent years. Alvarado said she is “charged up” by the activism she’s seeing in East San Jose.

“I had never in my many, many years in politics, had that kind of community support for an issue that has plagued the East Side community for decades,” Alvarado said.

Holding them accountable

There’s more work to do. Alvarado said San Jose has not done enough to advocate for its Latino residents and other communities of color, citing police use of force during the local George Floyd protests in downtown San Jose and growing housing inequities.

Alvarado is heartened to see the City Council’s Latino caucus — Sylvia Arenas, Sergio Jimenez, Magdalena Carrasco, Maya Esparza and Raul Peralez — push for equitable distribution of public resources and housing projects.

But keeping officials accountable is paramount — especially as Mayor Sam Liccardo’s term comes to an end next year.

“As long as I have breath, the next mayor selection we have is going to have a lot to answer for,” Alvarado said.

Between the pandemic, a Trump presidency, the recent insurrection at the Capitol and George Floyd protests last summer, Alvarado said local and state governments have a lot of house-cleaning to do.

A humble upbringing

Alvarado was shaped by her Catholic faith and childhood in Cokedale, Colorado, a mining town where she said everyone was the same. Everyone was a son or daughter of a coal miner. Everyone lived in company housing. They shared resources no matter who you were.

Alvarado eventually moved to San Jose and attended San Jose High School. Longtime friend, Bea Mendez Robinson, who went to school with Alvarado said she stood out even as a teenager. She was popular, well dressed and outspoken.

“She just stood out all the time,” Mendez Robinson said. “You knew she was important.”

Blanca Alvarado gives a thumbs up after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

Alvarado will turn 90 this July. She recently got a COVID-19 vaccine at the Mexican Heritage Plaza — a community center and school she helped launch. Since its founding in 1999, the plaza has helped San Jose residents preserve and celebrate Latino culture through art and education.

Alvarado’s family in Fresno has been affected by the virus. Her former son in law is still in the hospital. Her daughter is also recovering from COVID-19. She has also lost friends during the pandemic.

The longtime leader is keeping the faith. Her home is decorated wall to wall with art, religious emblems and tokens of Mexican culture. The same hummingbird tiles found at Mexican Heritage Plaza are also mounted on Alvarado’s wall.

In Mexican culture, the hummingbird symbolizes strength and luck. The pieces came from a tile shop’s junk pile years ago, said her friend Duarte Herrera.

“Even when things are really hard. She’s looking for the good. And looking for what it is that she can be grateful for,” Duarte Herrera said.

While this has been a “dauntingly difficult” year for the East Side matriarch, the single mother has been trying to spend as much time as she can with her children and grandchildren, including son Jaime and daughter Teresa, of San Jose.

“I have had an incredible life and to have lived this long,” Alvarado said. “And to have seen this much occur in my lifetime and to hope and believe that there will be more good to come in the future.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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