De los Santos and Gonzalez talk about growing up with a lack of mental health resources. Photo by Yvonne Gonzalez.

César Chávez’s spirit continues in today’s activism. With inspiration from their ancestors and elders, a new generation of Latinx activists are fighting for liberation.

The Chicanx and Latinx Resource Center (El Centro) invited panel speakers Judy de los Santos and Elias Gonzalez for the 16th annual César Chávez Convocation. Honoring the late labor leader who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America, the event spotlights Chicanx/Latinx activists working to solve the systemic issues prevalent within the Latinx community.

This year’s speakers come from opposite ends of California, but their work targets the same issues. De los Santos, hailing from Unión Del Barrio of San Diego, focuses on political advocacy and filling in the gaps in social science education. Gonzalez, from the community organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA) works on healing trauma accumulated over years of systemic injustice. 

“The reality is that when we go to sleep every night, the machine works day and night to incarcerate our folks,” Gonzalez said. “For me, it’s important to have conversations like this so that we can get our voice, so that we’re able to talk to those in power and address the issues that are facing our community.”

About 50 people gathered for the May 14 convocation at the College Nine and Ten Multipurpose Room. The conversation focused on the personal experiences that guided their development as activists. 

At 19, de los Santos marched at San Ysidro Park in San Diego for the 500th anniversary of the colonization of the Americas. The experience kick-started her passion for community organizing. 

Now, she’s strategizing with Mexican and Latinx communities to overturn oppression. De los Santos said educating people in marginalized communities about the erasure of culture, mass incarceration and violence builds agency that leads to systemic change.

“The curriculum is something that [our teachers] look at as far as encompassing things that are relevant to people who are Brown and Black,” de los Santos said. “What we’ve been taught in schools is something that’s not relevant to us, and the truth is basically twisted.”

But education is not restricted to a classroom. When Gonzalez was young, he had his own run-ins with the criminal justice system — and it wasn’t until later that he realized the value of his elders’ wisdom.

Gonzalez wants to return the gift of knowledge he received from his elders to his community. 

“I practice the same teachings as the brother Elias Gonzalez […]. I’m learning every day from different people,” said Roberto Solis from Barrios Unidos Santa Cruz. “It’s all about each one teach one, but you always embrace what our elders teach us, because we don’t know how to cook as good as they do.”

Before every meeting, MILPA has a círculo de conocimiento, or sharing circle, a space where members can open up about their struggles and understand each other on a more personal level. Gonzalez said the círculo de conocimiento is an essential part of the healing process because it’s a space where people can be vulnerable. 

Although external change is important, Gonzalez believes individuals must heal their internal trauma first. MILPA believes that uplifting its members — morally, spiritually and intellectually — is essential to the emancipation of Mexican and Latinx communities. 

“We’re in a comfortable element where we think our actions are not going to make a difference, but in reality, [they do],” Solis said. “And that’s where we break out of that element. And we go to places like this and [become] part of [the] community. That’s how you break that barrier. Getting out of your normal element.”