Ana Siria Urzua has led a life of transitions. Born in Colima, Mexico, Urzua came to Santa Ana as a 2-year-old with her mother after her father had already crossed. Once settled, the future activist's father found work at the local Mexican consulate. “That was formative for me in that I had my Mexican identity always present,” Urzua recalls. Eventually, her mother also worked at the consulate; there, the family met Socorro Sarmiento, one of the founders of Santa Ana's El Centro Cultural de Mexico, the pioneering community space that has served as a finishing school for OC Chicano activists for the past decade.
At age 15, Urzua began taking son jarocho classes there. She learned the instruments, developed her singing voice and joined Son del Centro, the in-house musical group that teaches free classes to all and performs worldwide.
“What I remember the most about getting involved with Son del Centro was the [Coalition of Immokalee Workers],” she says, referring to the coalition whose picketing of Taco Bell's Irvine headquarters a decade ago over tomato prices and working conditions in Florida's fields still resonates in the county's activist circles. “I remember participating in the hunger strikes, and that's really when my cultural identity took on a political slant.”
As Urzua pursued a degree in anthropology at UC Irvine, she stayed close to the Centro, doing community organizing while applying her smarts to Santa Ana. “In college, I ended up working with [anthropology professor] Michael Montoya on my senior thesis that I wrote on gentrification and displacement,” she says. Urzua did interviews with residents getting the boot from what is now the Station District in Santa Ana.
After graduating in '08, she began organizing with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD), where Urzua became one of the leading advocates for Santa Ana's Sunshine Ordinance for greater transparency. “I always felt like I had my stuff together,” she says of her life at that point, “but I didn't feel satisfied.” So she left her apartment, got rid of most of her stuff and decided to trek around Latin America, visiting six countries in 10 months, with Belize being the first and most memorable stop.
“I remember washing in the river with my friend Carmen,” she says. “I was looking around, and there were woodpeckers everywhere. We obviously sing about that stuff in son jarocho, but I hadn't seen that.”
Her friend said to her, “Imagine right now you'd be in your dirty-ass car, running late to your next meeting,” driving the point home further. At the end of her sojourn, she returned to Santa Ana and quickly involved herself even more, now as campaign coordinator for Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. “I felt like I could play a role, coming back in my community and making changes.”
One of those efforts is the Boys and Men of Color initiative and their work on restorative justice. Urzua, now 27, rattles off policies that changed the profile of a typical person in the juvenile-justice system from a white runaway girl three decades ago to today's brown and black youth. “Once we know how it happened, then we have the ability of reimagining what it ought to be,” she says, adding that she envisions a similar process for all facets of city life.
Urzua's building a healthy version of herself, too, which means spending more time with those who matter and living with others committed to producing more and consuming less. “It's my own personal transformation, which is tied to our collective transformation,” she says. “Unless we look at ourselves and how we live, we're all talk.”