Grassroots: Profiles of Local Activist Leaders

Grassroots: Profiles of Local Activist Leaders
Hector Cerda

By Richard Stone

At 32, Hector Cerda still sees himself as a young activist, just coming into his own as an organizer and thinker. And at the center of his agenda is the sacredness of water.

When Hector talks of water, he goes far beyond the political struggles (so well known here in the Valley) for control of water rights, and the wealth and power that come with them. For Hector, harking back to his heritage as a Native American, water is the essence of life and access to it without commercial mediation is a basic human right. “The world of commodification for profit—no matter how much convenience and wealth it generates—is a trap…but one most of us don’t escape. So always, the first struggle is within ourselves, learning to live in the midst of materialism without losing our freedom.”

For Hector, a moment of awakening occurred early in his teens. He was fully engaged with typical adolescent interests (cars, romance, etc.), but he was also drawn to distance running. Pushing his training without guidance or sufficient knowledge, he underwent a transformative experience. Not knowing what was wrong, only that he felt deathly ill in the middle of a run, he managed to get home, to bed and to sleep. But waking from a dream about dying, he found himself paralyzed, unable even to call for help. Finally, his mother came home and got him to a doctor. The diagnosis: extreme dehydration. It was the first lesson in the essential nature of water.

Searching for deep understanding of what had happened to him led Hector to a respect for the needs of the body and the habits he needed to change. “I stopped drinking soda and alcohol completely. In fact, I rarely drink anything but water anymore.”

It also led Hector to his native roots and contact with teachers who took him beyond fashion statements of identity. “Being Indian is a lot more than wearing your hair long,” he says. “It carries you back to a relationship with the world around you that goes deeper than the social and technological distractions thrown in our way.”

One of Hector’s early activist involvements was the Peace and Dignity Journey organized every 12 years. This is an epic undertaking: a run starting at several places across Alaska going south, and at Tierra de la Fuego at the tip of South America coming north, with participants converging near the Panama Canal. For those going the whole distance, it takes close to seven months running 50‒150 miles each day. Hector plans to do the whole route this time (last time he only did half) and is especially gratified that this ritual requiring such dedication is focused this time on the theme of water as a human right and on re-sanctifying the greater water sources of the Americas.

While attending Fresno State, Hector began to understand the teaching of his mother that you must understand and engage with the environment you live in. Not satisfied with complaining about student issues like tuition hikes, he set out to analyze the conditions behind the issues: how are state and college budgets drawn up; where does the money for the school come from and who controls spending decisions; why is more money spent on prisons than education. From this informed perspective, he has been able to choose how to focus his activism.

Hector says he feels fortunate that, since finishing his master’s degree, he has found compatible employment. He has just finished a summer internship with the national organization Food & Water Watch (FWW). “I’d naturally hoped to work on water issues, but I was needed for a campaign to impact the upcoming national Farm Bill.”

FWW is trying to increase consumer protection language; support efforts by small farmers to sell locally, for example, by making food stamps usable at farmers’ markets; and highlight the availability of foods with high nutritional value to counter trends toward obesity. “We’ve tried to gather 10,000 signatures statewide, and we’re just about there.”

Starting in September, Hector assumed the position of Central Valley regional organizer for the ACLU. While his main responsibility will be to implement national campaigns, especially through a presence in local schools, he looks forward to working closely with the local chapter on the issues it is emphasizing, such as the rights of the homeless and oversight of the police.

But while excited by these opportunities to implement the values he has come to espouse, Hector also reflects on the costs of activism. “I’m grateful to have been led in directions taking me outside the circle of my family and peer group, but I think also of wanting to marry and raise a family, and I’m a little perplexed at how to manage it all.”

Seeing his own conflicted feelings, he worries that many of his peers may lack the commitment to make the changes needed for society to survive. “We’re acculturated to quick gratification, not the long haul.”So his urgent request to each of us is, “Find something you want changed and make it your passion. Find how to make change right where you stand…and at the very least, change yourself to not have a negative impact on your environment.”

Meanwhile, he has nothing but thanks for those who have given him a bedrock of values and wisdom to build on. He speaks especially of his mother Jessica and grandmother Manuela; writers Jack Forbes and Vine DeLoria, Jr.; and local organizer Darrin Williams and family. To all appearances, Hector is a worthy descendant in this lineage.

Hector can be reached at


Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance. Contact him at



Name: Hector Cerda

Birthplace: Bakersfield

Ethnic identity: Apache/Purepecha

Religious identity: Spiritual

Political identity: “Bachelor seeking marriage”

Fresno hangouts: CSU campus, downtown

Inspiration: Homeless survivors

Motto: Via Lila Watson, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time; if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let’s work together.”

Non-political interest: Native American ceremony

Unexpected pleasure: old 1980s video clips on YouTube


Author’s note: After December, I will “retire” the Credo/Grassroots Profile column, which has been appearing since 2005—more than 80 pieces all together. It feels like time for a change. The plan is to start a new series in 2012 to be called “In the ’Hood,” recording a tour of a neighborhood conducted by a local resident—such as you. The thought is that, although there is undoubtedly a citywide “Fresno culture,” much of the quality of our lives is equally defined by the small neighborhoods we live in. I think our readers would be interested to see the variety of urban lifestyles within the metropolitan area of Fresno/Clovis.

To succeed, I’ll need volunteer docents to describe a neighborhood’s character, take me around to the high- and low-lights, and introduce me to the locals. If you’d like your neighborhood considered for inclusion, contact me at or 559-266-2559.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x