High-school teachers get very few things named after them, and those few things that get attached to their names usually involve puerile playground chants or epithets hurled by people looking to choke public education dead. But if you visit Café Calacas in downtown Santa Ana, you'll find a sandwich named after Santa Ana Valley High School history teacher Benjamín Vazquez: the Don Benjamín—tuna salad with a chile/garlic/mayo spread, carrots, cilantro and red onion, served on a telera bread. It's a bracing, filling, brash metaphor for the Santa Ana native, who at the young age of 42 is already a public-education legend in the city.
It's not just Vazquez's accomplishments at his alma mater (and, before that, at Century High) in forging seemingly underachieving students into scholars, activists and artists; he's the Zelig of Chicano OC, volunteering and teaching at nearly every critical juncture in the movement. Santa Ana's massive Día de los Muertos? Vazquez is in charge of trash duty and coordinating food vendors. The push by undocumented students for the DREAM Act? He has advised them in strategizing. Snarky T-shirts for fund-raisers? The son of Zacatecan immigrants lets groups use his screenprinting tools. Someone needs a grant? Call Ben. And if there's a protest somewhere in OC, you'll find Vazquez: burly, usually wearing a Panama hat and a guayabera, and cracking a laugh that can be heard all the way to the border.
Activism is a career Vazquez never imagined for himself. He admits to being a “moderate liberal” without a radical bone in his body when returning to Santa Ana in 2006 after teaching in Watts. Once back in his hometown, Vazquez realized that students at Willard Middle School needed activities for after school and during the weekends. After taking a group to various community centers only to find them closed, Vazquez approached the Centro Cultural de México, the legendary community space that has trained a generation of county activists. “I heard it was a community center—that's all I knew about it. I wanted to go drop off my kids there,” he says, adding a hearty laugh. “I didn't want to get involved!”
But the Centro's DIY ethos immediately inspired him. “It was all volunteers—no one got paid,” says Vazquez, who now sits on the board of directors and continues to teach art classes. “It inspired me to do my work there for free. I went from being a teacher of an institution to a community teacher—a maestro del pueblo. I learned how to manage via a non-hierarchical fashion.”
Given Santa Ana (or, as Vazquez takes pride in calling it, SanTana) is one of the youngest cities in the county, the teacher hombre makes sure his students at Valley and at the Centro don't get off easy, scholastically: no rote memorization, but rather a teaching method based on Socratic dialogue, of Vazquez not so much lecturing as asking, prodding and inspiring. “I enjoy moving kids from one space to knowledge, to creating,” he says. “So they can defend their community. Not only do you teach content, but you also have to teach culture and values. In an unjust world where immigrants are being attacked, you have to be able to create an identity where people can defend themselves from this injustice.
“I don't organize,” Vazquez finally confesses. “I just show up.”