It’s exactly two weeks from now that on August 24th, 2019, just after 8:00 PM, a group of twenty-somethings and I will be concluding a special event known as the 2nd Annual Back to School Party at El Gran Burrito in Los Angeles.
It’s going to be a small gathering of people and families in the little vicinity of Los Angeles I call home, but one which will draw many eyes for days after it’s over for being a demonstration of how to move and shake quickly for communities to educate and organize themselves. I’ve yet to fully come to terms with what the implications may be for my ole neighborhood afterwards, but perhaps I’m not supposed to. Perhaps I’m just supposed to believe, or keep believing, because that’s what so much of this has already been: just belief.
When I stop to think about why this is, however, or just how it is that we got here, how we got ‘so deep in’ to holding events like this for people–particularly youth and families–I have to pause.
My mind thinks back to Pasadena, and I remember the first and only Model United Nations High School conference that I put together at Pasadena City College for Pasadena’s high school students as the President of the Model UN club at the college. It was 2012, and I was 21 years old.
I remember being quite disturbed on the morning of the event, particularly by the stillness of everything, the way it seemed to be just a typical day. It was not. For me personally, the day of that High School Model UN conference was a day I had been waiting and planning for months ahead of time. It was another community gathering: a day when young people were to think critically about the world beyond them in a simulated meeting of nations.
Then, in perfectly ironic fashion, on the morning of the event, when there was supposed to be a microphone and speakers setup for my team and I at the college’s amphitheater, where we’d start our conference, there they were: missing in action, that is.
I had to scramble, and I made my way to the main office. I needed to call the whole world at the college, or whoever it needed to be, to let them know that in case they had forgotten, we’d made an agreement to set up this sound system for our conference to take place.
Finally, I was told by the folks at the main office that the equipment would be arriving. But then, my phone rang.
It was time to greet the students and everyone else who came to participate with a commencement speech. One of my fellow-team members asked if I’d prefer that he give the opening speech instead since we were running late due to the missing sound system.
But there was no chance on earth I would let someone else address the audience in my place. I was the president of the club. And I had spent so long planning this conference for the students that they had to wait. And I to run. So I sprang back across campus in my suit and bow-tie to make the opening speech.
I remember that it started to sprinkle, which made it so that I needed to be even quicker if I wanted to pull it off. In Los Angeles everyone is afraid of a little rain. In Pasadena, we were too.
I lunged forward. When finally I got to the amphitheater, I saw them. A whole swath of heads above shoulders huddled together, just waiting to see what would happen next. Three different high schools at Pasadena City College for the day.
How could a part of me not be afraid then; even if I had something to say, how could I know if they’d hear me?
But the rest of me, the one that would take over, was simply going to finish the job I set out to do.
As I stood before the audience then–all the conference’s high school participants as well as their teachers–looked at me, and I was ready to speak to every one of them; whether they were young or senior citizens, black or white, and regardless of where they came from, I was convinced in my heart that I had something meaningful to say to all.
And I addressed them as their host.
It would turn out to be a beautiful conference. The best High School Model UN conference in five years of being held at PCC.
As I recall that day, I’m nearly set on it as the first occasion or moment in which I showed true love for speaking to the world with some kind of speech.
But then, how can I forget the marches for Immigrant Rights in 2006, through the streets of Los Angeles?
In a world far removed from collegial Pasadena, I was 15 years old, standing at the intersection of Sunset boulevard and Highland avenue when a reporter from the local news approached a group of my peers and I with questions about why we were out of class that day, or why we had walked out. I remember my classmates calling out to me and finding me among the crowd. They wanted me to speak with the reporters.
I didn’t quite know how they all reasoned this out, but what I did know is that I wouldn’t refuse their request. Not with all the emotions on that day, which was the first of three days of marching through Los Angeles and cities all over America in solidarity with immigrants.
I answered the reporters’ questions then, only half-knowing what I was doing as I explained to the woman and her cameraman that marching for immigrant rights was about showing deep love for immigrant people and culture despite any legislation to the contrary–it was House Resolution 4437, or a bill set out to erase immigrants by way of extinction–that spurred us into action. When the reporter asked if I had any last words to say, I remember plucking, from somewhere out of the sky, the most energizing phrase I could recall at the moment:
“Que viva la raza!”
My classmates roared just after me, shouting out for themselves, but all at once in a unity that would reverberate with me always:
“Que viva la raza!” they said.
I wouldn’t even see the news clip until some seven years later. But it spoke. I was ready to speak up. I wanted to. My community at the time could see it. A lifetime later, I can see it now too.
Today, on the brink of the Second Annual Back to School Party in East Hollywood, I’m prepared to speak with whoever I can and must once again.
But I’ve already traveled far and wide for this event, raised my chin up high despite exhaustion from a world of other commitments, and stood tall to speak despite any air of hostility or indifference that could be thrown my way as another advocate haranguing leaders or their representatives to “do the right thing.” In any case, each time I’ve had the chance, I’ve advocated fiercely for my cause.
I’ve been brave, even when it wasn’t expected of me. And when no one asked it of me. But I’ve known for a long time I would have to be brave, just in case. My community taught me that. With BTS 2, I haven’t forgotten for one second. We will continue lunging forward.