I forgot to ask this month’s subject, Ernesto Saavedra, if he was named after Che. Even if his parents didn’t think of it, it would have been appropriate. For this Ernesto is a 24/7 organizer of disempowered youth, wholeheartedly dedicated to bringing social understanding, and the collective strength to act, to teens in communities of color and low-income.
Ernesto is one of the organizers for the Fresno branch of Californians for Justice, a statewide organization. Targeting disadvantaged neighborhoods, Ernesto and his colleagues, Gina Rodriquez and Rhea Martin, have established clubs on three high school campuses: Fresno High, Edison and Roosevelt. There they teach about the history of social movements and resistance to racism, and organizing skills such as public speaking, doing outreach and running a campaign. They involve the students in activities such as block parties, neighborhood cleanups and rallies-activities that are both learning experiences and expressions of democratic involvement and empowerment.
Ernesto says he caught the organizer bug while attending Fresno State, but politics was already in his mind. “My parents were first generation immigrants, with little English. They worked in the Valley’s fields and factories and didn’t have much time for politics, but they spoke up for themselves, both at the workplace and at home. They talked freely about injustices they experienced and saw.”
Personally, Ernesto experienced not so much overt prejudice as indifference. “I started school with no English. I was in ESL classes at first, but no one seemed to extend much effort to help me bridge the language and culture gap. I felt very much the outsider until I caught up around the third grade.”
During high school and his first years at Fresno State, he remained politically unengaged but gained sensitivity to oppression and prejudice in society through hip hop music and movies like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. But then courses taken with Dr. Matthew Jendian on race and ethnicity, Criss Wilhite on social psychology and Dr. Timothy Kubal on social movements combined to turn on the “organizer” switch.
“For Dr. Kubal’s class, we had to research a local activist organization. I chose MECHA [Movimiento Estudiante Chicano/a de Aztlan]. It was the time of California’s anti-immigrant initiative [which was passed but later ruled unconstitutional, Ed.] and I felt under attack. I was asked to do various small tasks for the club as they organized against the bill, and I began to feel part of the group. Most of them were seniors, and I guess I felt I needed to take up the torch when they left.”
The next year, Ernesto became a lead organizer for the annual Cesar Chavez vigil on campus. “I was surprised how powerful an experience it was to work with people who shared pride in their heritage and a common purpose.” From there, it was little stretch to his current position.
Having watched Ernesto in action at occasional meetings and events, I was aware of his passion and intensity. What I hadn’t seen, until the interview for this column was his good humor and understanding of human difference. He speaks of political opponents without anger, realizing that even political enemies have a shared humanity, and a right to thought and opinion he doesn’t share. “I understand we all have only partial knowledge of a situation, and people can adopt positions out of ignorance or fear, often led on by public figures seeking power. But understanding them means I don’t hate them, it doesn’t mean I compromise.” It was impressive for me to hear such Gandhian sentiments from so young a man.
I asked Ernesto about the prominent tattoos he sports. He assured me they did not represent gang affiliation or jail time. The ones on his right forearm are, in fact, a quote from Emiliano Zapata (“Esmejor morir de pie que viver una vida de rodillas” [“It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees”]); a Mexican Indian symbol, ollin, meaning “movement”; and the cry of African freedom fighters, “Uhuru.” On his neck is written the name of his 11-year-old sister Juanita, which to him emblazons his commitment to his family and future generations. “I don’t expect a lot of the changes I work for to come in my lifetime… but maybe in hers.”
It was interesting to me that when I asked Ernesto about obstacles he encounters, he said nothing at first about the political and institutional forces that oppose his work. Instead, he focused only on the difficulty of engaging potential allies, the mental conditioning and apathy that make it hard for people to see themselves as part of the political process. He says the way he’s learned to address this problem is through direct dialogue.
“We have to go to people where they are, on the street, at the mall, in school. We have to initiate dialogue and know that they will mistrust strangers, fear expressing opposition to authority, and be immersed in everyday concerns. We have to convince them not only that they can make their living conditions better, but that it is freeing to act on behalf of yourself and those you care about.” I was impressed, too, with Ernesto’s understanding that the goal of movement work is not just a change in power relations, but a change in the meaning of power. “I want to be part of transforming power from meaning ‘power over and at the expense of ‘ to meaning ‘the ability to accomplish things together.'”
In this perspective, Ernesto’s answer to my last question is not unexpected. What would he ask our readers to do? “Educate yourself, get involved with local issues, with what touches you personally. Do something, even if only giving moral support. Understand we’re all somehow in the same boat.”
- Name: Ernesto Saavedra
- Birthplace: Lynwood, CA (near Los Angeles)
- Ethnic identity: Chicano
- Most frequented parts of Fresno: Downtown and Chinatown
- Inspirations: “Local heroes” like Gloria
- Hernandez, Debbie Reyes, Polo
- Chavez and Rey Leon; Malcolm X
- Motto: “No one can do everything, but
- everyone can do something.”
- Non-political involvements: Basketball, writing poetry
- Unexpected pleasure: Cartoons like The Simpsons
- Contact information: email@example.com