History and the People Who Make It: Sonja Diaz

transcript edited by Pierce Butler

This is the ninth in a continuing series of transcript excerpts from the collection of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida.

Community organizer Sonja Diaz was interviewed by Prof. Paul Ortiz [O] on June 3, 2010.

I am a third/fourth generation Chicana. My dad’s side of the family was born and raised in Southern California back to my great grandparents. My mom is sixth generation Tejana. My mother was a farm worker and my father grew up in East L.A., a construction worker with my grandpa. Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college. My mom was active in the UFW and my father in the East L.A. Walkouts. I grew up in East L.A. in a family that was very socially conscious. Every weekend we’d go to an art event, a protest, a march. For instance, the César Chávez marches in East L.A.; protesting Prop. 187, to take away social services for undocumented people; Prop. 209 which ended affirmative action. We called it “Radio Fire activism” ‘cause my brother and I would get in our red Radio Fire and our parents would drag us along. So, activism was spurred through our family: my father, being an urban planner and advocating on behalf of urban communities of color; my mother, working in social services and for empowerment of blacks and Latinos. It just was natural at UC Santa Cruz to continue activism along racial/ethnic lines. So, definitely East Los Angeles, El Sereno, and my parents shaped who I am today. It gave me that community education that was so lacking in LAUSD public schools. They taught me in a way where I felt proud of not only being a Chicana, but also of where I grew up and of the people and community that supported me.

My mom started working the fields at age five. She talked about not having water, not having bathroom breaks, not getting paid. She told me about my grandpa, who was born in Mexico and didn’t have formal education, taking notes about all the hours that his compadres worked because they weren’t getting paid for everything.

On my dad’s end, both my grandparents were very vigilant that they went to Catholic schools. If you had more than three kids, after the third it was free, so it was a deal for them. But it was very racist and he would talk about discrimination based on skin, based on class.  His counselors refused to give him a college application. And to this day, I look at that story as something—wow, you know—that’s what used to happen, but it’s still happening.

I’m not immigrant, nor are my parents, but that was our community, the Latino community. There was a sense of solidarity — policies like SB 1070 [an anti-immigrant Arizona law] now, affect us directly despite the fact that we have citizenship.

In fourth grade in California we learn about missions and Native Americans, and we don’t talk about genocide. It’s more of a picturesque thing of the missions and daily life.  I was classified gifted in second grade so that afforded me extra curriculum where we would go into subjects like oceanography or architecture, but those were very race neutral. Nothing was critical and it stayed that way. In U.S. history there would be a paragraph about Martin Luther King or the civil rights movement, nothing about Native American genocide. I would bring these perspectives up, and the rest of the class was clueless. There was no history of Latinos, Asians, or blacks. There was no perspective that there was wrong-doing on behalf of white people or colonizers.

My great-grandpa Tony, who passed away in 2006, was very close to us. He was born in Redlands and lived in East L.A. and had a lot of odd jobs. He was a butcher, a gang member, a boxer. He would tell us about not being able to go to school past fifth grade because someone burnt down the schoolhouse, or that he was so poor he would spell poor with four o’s. My favorite was that on his birthday all he’d get was an extra tortilla. He saw it all—he ended up living to about a hundred years old.

O:     … your assessment of where SB 1070 and House Bill 2281 come from [HB 2281 is an Arizona law prohibiting school curricula catering to specific ethnic groups]?

SB 1070’s purpose and where it was coming from was hate. The group that created it is a right-wing neo-conservative think tank. We’re in a recession and people want to know who to blame. People on the bottom get to be scapegoats, though they have no part in what’s going on. The new regulation out of Arizona states that high school English teachers cannot have an accent. They’re all so arbitrary, obviously targeted at communities of color, communities where English was not their first language. But there’s been massive organizing that has been multi-ethnic and multi-generational. I’m a third/fourth generation Chicana, but this is an issue I care about, where I can be an ally. When we had the May Day Rally this year, the L.A. Times estimated about 45,000 people were there. But I have to tell you, it was just dense, at least 200,000 people. This is a four-lane street, for what, about 13 blocks down? And L.A. city blocks are long. Prop. 187 galvanized the Latino vote.But hopefully there’s gonna be civic participation implications too, which would result in Latino and other immigrant communities, who are eligible to vote but are not registered, to register and to change the landscape. There’s a lot of direct action. I have a lot of peers at UCLA that went in front of the ICE Detention Center downtown and stopped an ICE bus from coming in. A lot of friends went to Arizona last weekend on busses. These are working families going and protesting, that are peaceful. In LA, there was a strong presence of Asian-Pacific Islanders, but we still haven’t been able to galvanize the black community.

O:     Let me ask you about this attempt to quash ethnic studies. In Texas textbooks, Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, has been replaced with Phyllis Schlafly, a leader of the conservative movement.

People are not getting a clear view of history. To have different perspectives, especially perspectives that speak to one’s own racial, ethnic, or urban community are important. To not have any role models in your textbook, to have counselors and educators tell you you’re worthless because of the color of your skin— it just continues an ideology that you are not to go anywhere, that higher education is not for you, that low-wage, unskilled labor opportunities are for you, that prisons are for you. It’s a narrow view. It seeks to put down a class of people by not legitimizing their history, not giving them access to it. So by not having people like Dolores Huerta, or Rosa Parks, which as a country, we are all very, very in tune with celebrating her legacy, is problematic. These students—black, Latino, and Asian students—are not gonna have role models. And American Indians: there’s no one that looks like them that did something great. So if you see nothing but white men that are leaders, where’s the room for you?

Students are taught this is unbiased recounting of what happened. For students that go to those schools, that later become social justice advocates, to be able to build consensus amongst allies that don’t believe the evidence that’s out there, because they too are reading this biased wording — it just makes things even harder.

My father was in a doctoral program at UCLA. My brother and I were about five, six years old, and we would go to school with him, and play and climb the trees. It wasn’t until high school in a predominantly Latino and Asian, Pacific Islander, middle/working class neighborhood that I realized not everybody goes to college.

My high school was just a factory. They weren’t concerned about students that were college going, they were concerned about students that they classified as delinquent. I didn’t have any interface with my high school counselor. College was an opportunity for me, but no educators at my high school were able to support that. Our school was heavily policed. We had narks, paid security officers, on the premises all the time. There was a parole officer on campus, had his own office there.

There was a very heavy presence of army, marine, and navy recruitment. I was in high school when the war started. Three of us jumped the fence and were protesting. I was surprised by my own high school ‘cause we weren’t politicized. I was in sports, I played on the varsity teams where my friends were like, this war is good, terrorists need to die, racial [epithets] and stuff of that sort. So like a little fight ended up happening. I  got suspended for a few days. The principal called my parents; they supported me, and she was shocked. There was a high school that had people of color, target 101 to recruit. They would sign my friends up for 4, 5, 6 years.

I went to UC Santa Cruz because of a student initiated retention program for Chicano/Latino students. Through that, I got to meet upperclassmen and underclassmen already in college, and incoming students like myself. The discourse we had about what it meant to be a student of color, how to prepare, what Santa Cruz could offer — these diversity outreach programs that provide a critical lens, helped me reaffirm what I wanted to do.

Santa Cruz was unique — there isn’t any fraternities, sororities, and that culture isn’t there, and there isn’t the sports culture, all you’re left to do is to organize, which I had been used to doing. That was where all the students of color went, where the fun was,  to join ethnic/racial or progressive student organizations. That allowed me to build a network, but it gave me a biased perspective, because it was so comfortable. When I later found out in upper div courses was very marginalizing. There weren’t a lot of students of color and other perspectives weren’t talked about. The small college system at Santa Cruz valued diversity, everybody organized and had some sort of political orientation, or a cause, and just got into it. So that was good. But it also provided a false sense of community because Santa Cruz was the least diverse, and the wealthiest UC in the system.  So what I saw and the comfort that I felt wasn’t actually what was happening demographically.

I was heavily involved in outreach and retention programs for black, Latino, Asian, Pacific-Islander, and Native American students. I facilitated a student initiated retention program for Chicano/Latino students in my sophomore year and created all kinds of programming, wrote grants, insured there were tutors specifically assigned for this group, and was very interested in multi-ethnic coalition building. At Santa Cruz, organizing is very segregated by racial/ethnic identity, and sometimes bridges between organizations weren’t built. I also did a lot of student government work, passing referendums to institutionalize these programs. It was great that we had them, but if the administration wasn’t gonna fund outreach and retention for under-represented students, there was not much we could do. You know, we barely had money for school. So I learned how to provide structural reforms that lead towards equity. That meant getting the chancellor to commit money every year for these programs.

I took African-American and Latino histories class, the junior year of my undergraduate career. I spent the first half of junior year in Washington D.C. working in Congress, where I felt like I was in a weird sociology experiment because D.C. is just so segregated. I wasn’t used to that sheer racism, where it was black and white, and nobody in between. And working in Congress where it was black people pushing the shopping carts with the mail or working in the cafeteria and all the staffers were white. It was just weird. So to come back to Santa Cruz was even more interesting, because I knew that there was different levels of oppression going on, but I didn’t know the extent. Some of my friends didn’t believe any of the[se] things — they were history majors — because they went through a discipline that didn’t talk about this. Learning that black people in the U.S. have zero wealth and Latinos aren’t much higher. Just the sheer disparities: the intentional segregation when they started building single family homes to house war veterans, but only veterans that were white… It made me very, very interested in black politics.

After that course I went to a national program at the University of Michigan, with other students of color. Black students did not want to build coalitions with Latino students. They felt that immigration was a Latino problem, that they had to fix their own community before they could think about anybody else. To have that evidence that I learned in African American and Latino Histories, to share that, was important. Even though our communities have different issues, there are issues that we have worked on together in the past. Immigration isn’t just a one-color issue, there is Caribbean immigration. More importantly, the idea of Afro-Latinos, the fact that there are blacks that are Mexican, the blacks of Dominica, this idea, not discussed at all, that represents hundreds of thousands of people’s lived experience, this aided my argument about multi-ethnic coalition building. It allowed me to contextualize my own senior thesis, on Asian and Latina female textile workers in Los Angeles, and see the propensity for them to build coalitions. The framework and analysis that I got in black and Latino histories class, was that blacks were here for a much longer time, that there exist competition over jobs, these fears about the other, ways in which we’ve worked together in the past. There’s the same thing in the textile industry, where Latinos have been here longer than some of the Asian immigrants, yet some Asian immigrants own the factories, or are managers, and sub-contractors. All these different specificities make it hard to find commonalities.

Recently, I was at a meeting about SB 1070 at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center. Someone was talking about how there were no blacks at the march on May Day, and how do we get them involved, and this is a civil rights thing. I started getting itchy because we can’t, as Latinos, use history and the achievements of others, where we’re misappropriating it. We can’t just assume that blacks should be out there too. These relationships need to be cultivated. There’s still the idea that blacks aren’t immigrants, even though we see a lot of West Africans or Caribbeans coming mostly to the East Coast, but some to L.A. and the Bay Area. And also for black Americans that have been here for generations to be included in a movement fighting for civil rights, although it may be something that they don’t have a direct connection to, they could still get down with it. There’s a lot of trust that needs to be built. I am more hopeful now, in terms of coalition building. Leaders, city-elected officials, and also researchers, need to pay more attention to this. A lot of the literature out there is about the tensions that exist, or ways a single ethnic community organizes itself, instead of what’s going on between groups.

One example of what would be good to analyze between blacks and Latinos is this movement for green jobs. The propensity for those blue collar jobs to be unionized and come back to black communities, but to also incorporate Latino workers that are newly arrived or have been here for generations, like myself. We’re seeing coalitions, like the Apollo Alliance in Los Angeles, that has a lot of different organizations, some racial/ethnic based. working together to make the pie bigger, and then to use the pie in an equitable manner. Job creation would definitely be something to watch over the next few years.

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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