Long before enlisting herself in Orange County's labor wars, back when she was a high-school student at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Denise Velasco got her first taste of political discourse. The polarizing winds of California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 were still gusting after its passage at the state ballot box in 1994, and Velasco was sitting in Spanish class when her instructor raised the issue. A white girl with impeccable Spanish spoke up. "Bueno, yo pienso que los ilegales no tienen derecho," she said, "porque nuestros papás pagan impuestos."
Translation: Illegals have no right to be here because our parents pay taxes.
Velasco, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was upset by what she heard. Overcoming her shyness, she raised her hand. "The people you're talking about look like me!" The rebuttal may not have caused much of a stir in the classroom, but it ignited a sense of personal dignity in Velasco, one that has guided the rest of her life.
A few years later, U.S. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez visited an AP government class at Mater Dei, where she was grilled by the same student who earlier spoke up in favor of Prop. 187. Sanchez responded by making a reference to her predecessor, whom she had defeated. "That's my dad," the girl exclaimed. When Bob Dornan's daughter revealed herself, Velasco says, "Everything clicked!"
Velasco ventured northward to attend UC Berkeley. After graduation, family ties brought her back to the southland with plans of becoming a high-school history teacher. But an internship with the Service Employees International Union's Justice for Janitors campaign would seemingly cement her place in OC. "Everybody has this notion that LA is where organizing is at," she says, "but, for me, it's really needed here."
After a five-year stint with Justice for Janitors, Velasco, who now resides in Costa Mesa, lent her talents to SEIU Local 721, coordinating OC political campaigns for the union's Independent Expenditure wing. It was there that she would eventually cross paths with a precinct walker named Yesenia Rojas, who introduced her to the working-class community of Anna Drive in Anaheim.
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In July 2012, Velasco, 32, had just finished her master's degree at Harvard Kennedy School when a fatal officer-involved shooting and subsequent, videotaped assault on a crowd of protesters sent shockwaves through Anaheim. In the months that followed, residents wanted to form an association out of the trauma, and Unidad: United Neighbors in Dignity of Anna Drive was born. There has been a heavy emphasis on neglected youth and providing them with various workshops.
Unidad will be honoring Santo Toribio, the Catholic patron saint of immigrants with a peregrinación (pilgrimage) on April 14, an event that underscores how faith continues to play a role in maintaining the collective strength of the residents. "It's something in myself that I haven't been as connected to," Velasco says reflecting on the personal as well as the political.
"It reminds me a lot of organizing with the janitors," she says of her experiences in Anna Drive. "Situations can be so dire, but people always find a way to survive."