Heart attack, lung failure and an induced coma weren’t the only hurdles in the life of East San Jose native Eddie Garcia. As a child of color he had to work twice as hard to succeed even before he almost died.
Garcia, 58, was raised in East San Jose. His dad was a postal worker, and his mom a teacher’s aide at James Lick High School. Although they didn’t graduate college, his parents insisted he did—shaping the man he is today.
During Garcia’s senior year of high school, his counselor advised him to trade his dream of attending San Jose State University for vocational school or community college. When his father learned of this recommendation, he took a day off from work and spoke to the counselor advocating for his son’s future. Garcia ended up graduating from San Jose State with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Garcia has seen this stereotypical behavior of steering struggling students of color away from college too often. It’s why he spearheaded requirements to prepare East Side Union High School District students for higher education and better career options. He also co-founded the Latino Leadership Alliance in 2006—a leadership academy established in collaboration with Stanford University. Its graduates include San Jose Councilmembers Raul Peralez and Maya Esparza.
Everything came to a screeching halt for Garcia in June 2010, when he suffered a major heart attack at age 46. While in the ICU at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, he went into cardiac arrest and had to be shocked back to life. Then his lungs stopped working, so doctors put him into an induced coma for six weeks.
Garcia was paralyzed when doctors brought him out of his coma, his vocal cords had fallen asleep and his muscles atrophied. He had lost 50 pounds. He had to relearn how to eat, talk and walk. His wife never left his side. His daughters, Erica and Marisa, were 12 and 16 at the time.
Following his recovery, he returned to advocating for better education opportunities for East San Jose students.
“I kept thinking of the day (my father spoke to my counselor), thinking not everybody has a father like mine,” Garcia told San José Spotlight. “That’s what drove me.”
His vision for the Latino Leadership Alliance was to create a program that encompassed a full menu of skills, one focused on politics, education, community-based nonprofits and business. The curriculum is a blend of academics and applied learning from knowledge Garcia gained during his career working as vice president of local government affairs at Comcast, chief of staff for former Santa Clara County Supervisor George Shirakawa, East Side Union High School District board member and board chairman of the Mexican Heritage Corporation.
Lennies Gutierrez, board member of the Latino Leadership Alliance who graduated from the program, said the importance of civic engagement isn’t just running for office, but also registering to vote and speaking up on issues that affect the community. She said Garcia teaching them how to navigate difficult situations based on his real-life experiences is invaluable.
“It’s a very selfless act to want to serve others,” she told San José Spotlight. “It’s not always easy, but that’s what needs to happen in any community where voices need to be elevated.”
Marcela Davison Aviles, former executive director of the Mexican Heritage Corporation, which presented Mexican and multicultural performing arts, describes Garcia as a “bad ass, innovative, courageous, enthusiastic, deeply devoted to service and inspirational.” She said under his leadership, Mexican Heritage Corporation received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and San Jose, and was able to produce a Latin music event at HP Pavilion for an audience of 17,000.
“If it hadn’t been for Eddie, I don’t know if a movie like Coco would’ve existed,” said Davison Aviles, who also serves as Disney/Pixar’s lead cultural consultant. “It was a challenging gig, but I feel I was well prepared because I was a student of Eddie Garcia.”
As a former trustee of the East Side Union High School District, Garcia led efforts to implement college prep standards, known as A-G requirements, to get students ready for higher level academics.
In November 2010, the school board approved making the A-G courses—a CSU and UC school admissions requirement—the default curriculum. But it’s been an uphill battle. The teacher’s union fought against it, believing it would overburden students.
In addition to the core memory of his father speaking to the school counselor, Garcia was motivated by requests by Californians for Justice, a youth organization which advocates for racial justice, to make graduation requirements the same as college entrance requirements.
Garcia’s wife, Sandra, 55, said her husband is a fighter and believes in giving back for the good of the community.
“He was not going to allow that to happen to other kids,” she said.
When Garcia left rehabilitation in September 2010 following his heart attack, he learned the A-G initiative had failed to pass at that month’s board meeting with a split vote. As president of the school board, he proposed putting it back on the agenda for November. That time it passed unanimously.
“It was huge, like a capstone,” Garcia said. “It was all worth it.”
In 2020, he received a heart transplant.
Garcia wrote about his experience in his book “Summer in the Waiting Room,” which focuses on faith, hope and love. During recovery, he read voraciously about religion and discovered his own spirituality.
“No matter how bleak things look,” he said, “there’s always hope.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]