Whether in the classroom or the courtroom, Carolyn Torres sees her younger self in the causes she fights for. She teaches 10th and 11th graders in Watts during the day, but OC knows her best as an activist with Chicanos Unidos, a grassroots group waging a prominent battle against the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA) over the Townsend Street gang injunction in Santa Ana.
The city has a special place in her heart. Poverty forced Torres to constantly move around OC and the Inland Empire, but Santa Ana is the only place that feels like home. "My deepest roots are here," she says. "My grandmother came to Santa Ana in the late 1920s from San Juan Capistrano when she was 4."
Her parents, aunts and uncles came of age in the city during the late 1960s. But a wave of addiction uprooted the family. "In the '80s," she recalls, "heroin hit everybody pretty hard, and my parents along with all their siblings got hooked."
Torres eventually ended up in Moreno Valley with her Aunt Carolyn, whom she's named after. Her tía provided stability during the tumult; she told her namesake niece she should join MEChA to avoid dropping out of high school.
"As soon as I turned 18, I came back to Orange County to go to Cal State Fullerton," Torres says. "My first couple of months, I was living in motels with my sister and her two kids." Torres persevered and graduated in 2007, then earned a master's in education at Cal State Long Beach.
A Cal State Fullerton professor linked her up with Chicanos Unidos. She went to a meeting in 2008 and joined soon after, impressed by the group's passion and refusal to bow down against seemingly impossible obstacles. The organization was then fighting the OCDA on an Orange gang injunction; the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled it unconstitutional. "It was a learning experience," she remembers.
And it prepared Torres for the surprise dropped during an August 2013 Santa Ana Police presentation at KidWorks near Townsend Street. The officers were talking about injunctions when a PowerPoint slide showed a safety zone around the community. "We had to try to figure out what was happening," Torres says.
The injunction wouldn't be filed until June 2014, at which point Chicanos Unidos had already informed community members and found lawyers to fight the move in court. "We don't know what's going to happen, but what we do know is that they were not able to just slip this in," Torres says. "The hope is that at least a couple of the guys will not be on this list. The other hope is that we raised an issue of this."
She believes that drug rehabilitation, job re-entry services and student programs are better solutions than gang injunctions, as they're the kind of things she says might've helped her family back in the day.
"The structure is a monster, and it's called a struggle for a reason," Torres says. "What little positive pieces we can pick up in the fight creates a quilt so that we can keep going."