History and the People Who Make It: Marisol Pineda

transcript edited by pierce butler

This is the eleventh in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.
Marisol Pineda was interviewed by Paul Ortiz [O] on May 18, 2010.

I was born and raised in Santa Ana, southern California, but my whole family is from Mexico. I am first generation, first one to go to college and graduate and I graduated [from] the University of California Santa Cruz. I majored in Literature and a concentration in Spanish language.
I transferred from a community college. From high school I qualified to go straight to the university, however the educational system, especially here in Santa Ana, wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t have that confidence to go straight to the University. But the transition from the community college to Santa Cruz wasn’t so bad. Socially, the culture in Santa Cruz was different because Santa Ana College, here, was mostly Latino and out there it was rarely that I saw Latinos.
Also, the African American and Latino histories. I read Piri Thomas and Elizabeth Martinez, those are key books and writers that I still look back to [Piri Thomas- (10/30/28- ) Puerto Rican poet raised in Harlem, New York, well known for sharing his experiences and activism. Elizabeth Martinez (12/12/25- ), social activist, community organizer and author of 500 Years of Chicano History and other titles].
Something I learned that I will never forget, is that race and class go together, that you can’t speak of one without the other. Growing up in Santa Ana, my family immigrating to the United States, I would see those problems that Piri Thomas faced, like language barriers, looking for jobs, the resources that sometimes we have to seek. He would have to go with his mom and take the day off school to translate whenever she wanted to ask for benefits.

Many times my family had to ask me, a little kid, to go with them and translate in different places. And this is one of the key motivators that  led me to want to pursue education or a career in law. Many times I had to also translate in legal settings and that was a language that I couldn’t understand neither. So just reading Piri Thomas brought so many issues that Latinos and African Americans face because we’re under represented and underprivileged.
O:    One of the other people we read now, Martin Espada, certainly his experience of being a literary person but also legal aid lawyer had a big impact on his writing [Martin Espada (8/57- ) Puerto Rican poet from Brooklyn; published first book of political poems in 1982; celebrated poet and professor of literature].
His poetry was really inspiring. Just how he would go to courts and represent Latinos and how the judges were predominantly white and would always rule against his clients. How he experienced that and him being a Latino and a lawyer it was still hard for him cause it’s a system that is so hard to go against or beat.
O:     There’s a poem he wrote that I always remember. He was called in to translate and it wasn’t even a client of his, it was a lady who was living in a very lousy tenement. Her landlord wanted to evict her and she wanted to point out how terrible the conditions were in her apartment and how this wasn’t being kept up. And she was waiting to give her side of the testimony, and the landlord presents his case and the judge rules against the lady, and she doesn’t know even that the judge has already ruled. Espada has to explain this to her, that she’s not gonna have her opportunity to tell her side of the story. That story always has a big impact on people.
Both of my parents didn’t have the privilege of going to school or even graduating from high school. My mom was a single mother, and she always worked hard to make sure that me and my two sisters were always enabled to go to school and do our best. Also, we’ve always been taught to work hard. My mother has been a great inspiration to me. She was a homeowner, and she lost her home in the foreclosures that have been faced here in a great concentration, especially here in Southern California.
O:    I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about what’s happening now in Arizona, SB1070 as well as a try to limit ethnic studies curriculum [SB1070 was a controversial policy that mandated legal aliens to carry documents of registration and gave authorities the right to ask for these documents without warrant.  Have you had thoughts about this?
Here in California a lot of community colleges and universities have been doing coalitions to reach the Latino community in Arizona. Personally I believe that ethnic courses and literature, such as the African American course, were key education. Without it I wouldn’t have come out the same.
O:    We talked about the May Day demonstrations in 2006 and some of the later ones. Arizona SB1070, does that seem to be having this kind of catalyzing effect on Latino communities?
It keeps alienating the Latino community, taking them out of the history, out of the classes. This is a way of not only isolating us but also making us look as outsiders, as enemies in a way since we are not part of this country.
O:    What do you think is behind this attack on immigrants, on ethnic studies? There always has been this backlash, but it seems to be escalating.
It’s majorly because more and more Latinos, we are growing in professions, we’re growing in positions in politics and government our presence is more noticeable now. When Latinos have more power it becomes a threat to the hegemonic society.
O:    What kind of work have you been doing since 2008?
In my last quarter I interned with the UCDC program in Washington, D.C. and with the League of United Latin American Citizens national office, and I’ve been staying connected with LULAC, writing articles [UCDC- University of California program in Washington D.C. League of United Latin American Citizens – advocacy group for Hispanic Americans]. Whenever issues [arise] like the Arizona laws, issues that affect the Latin American community, organizations like this stand up right away.
Our communities have been fighting back, they have been active, they have been making coalitions.
We as Latinos, are used to being defined and limited to our history, to what our community is and has done. I was really proud that as Latinos we define who we are by our activism and by just being respondent to the attacks against our culture and community.
I’m still working with Santa Ana College,  going out to the Latino communities and all the different ethnic communities in the college and promoting activism.
In my city we’re predominantly Latino, but there is a growing community of African American. May 1st we had our own march and we saw the African American communities joining in as well.
O:     During the election campaign of then Senator Obama, did you have a chance to participate?
Yes. I also interned with the APALA [ Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance]. We went to Virginia where there is the concentration of Asian Americans. We were outreaching to the community to come out and vote. A lot of people, because of language barriers and just because they’re not aware, were not voting when their vote was significant, especially in those key states. So I was helping out in that during the election. I was very lucky that I saw the President the night before Manassas [Virginia].
O:    You went specifically to Virginia to work on voter registration?
Yes. We also went to the polls that same day, just letting them know that they have their right to vote, that they couldn’t be intimidated. Because there was an incident where minutemen were there, trying to intimidate voters. So we were also letting them know their rights.
O:    These were Asian American voters primarily?
Asian American and Latino.
O:    What’s your assessment so far of President Barack Obama?
The Latino community, the African American community came out to vote for him because he was promising a lot of good things for our communities, immigration reforms. There are limitations on what he can do but he could have done better. This is a sign for our community to see that just by coming out and voting our work is not done.
We all need to put our needs in front, we all have to come together ‘cause it’s basically similar things that we need. Our education system, how they raise the fees significantly. The newer generations that are coming are all affected.
O:    Thinking about being yourself, a first generation university graduate, and the outreach work that you do now, what are the things that an incoming student needs to know about the university?
First of all not to accept the basic education ‘cause the university will offer you the European culture, European region. [If] the student is African American or Latino, looking at their history, seeing the influence of your community and fighting for that type of education, not letting the laws take away your education. Going to the history, ‘cause history makes it clearer for us in the present.
Empowering ourselves through education, through activism, that the university gives you a space to do so.
One of my main role models is Dolores Huerta. She was cofounder of the labor movement. She’s a living legend and in our local radio whenever there’s issues, she comes out, she speaks and she’s still doing work in spite of all the history that she’s already done.
O:    She’s really been a long distance runner in the movement.
Yes. And she’s a feminist.
O:    You had mentioned earlier that you’re the first generation of your family to go to school, do you have younger brothers and sisters or nephews or nieces who may go to college?
Yes, I have a lot of younger cousins and my little sister, she’s fourteen, and I’m already asking them what university do you wanna go to, what do you want to focus, what’s your careers, I gave my little sister the Down These Mean Streets book and literature that she should have [Down These Mean Streets- written by Piri Thomas, is a 1967 autobiographical novel about El Barrio, the Spanish Harlem of New York].

This coming generation, they’re so smart and they need the tools like this book that empower you.
O:    Anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to talk about?
There is prominent environmental racism. How we see the oil spills going on in the Gulf of Mexico and the coal mining in Virginia and how it’s still prominent, it’s a major issue that communities of color are affected by environment disasters.

An audio podcast of this interview will be made available, along with many others, at www.history.ufl.edu/oral/feature-podcasts.htm.
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