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Street Soldiers

Real community organizing is returning to San Jose

By Raj Jayadev

I'VE BEEN to too many San Jose vigils lately. In the past few weeks, a man was killed downtown by a state drug agent, a 25-year-old was shot by the police on the East Side, an Indian man shot four Indian men in a park and two teenage boys were killed in a Jack in the Box parking lot.

It is as if the city itself is dying.

But we've been mourning for more then the dead. In the past month, candles were lit for innocent families deported under homeland security measures and young victims of abuse in our Santa Clara Juvenile Hall.

Our public issues, the ones that get out, have always been defined as economic unemployment, budget cuts, unequal cost-of-living. But recent headlines are adding new dimensions to what it means to survive in the heart of Silicon Valley. We are in the post-post-dotcom era and are finding our city more complicated than our income gap.

While traditional voices of protest--unions, student groups, nonprofit organizations--are justifiably fighting economic disparity and budget cuts, street-level movements are also arising in San Jose to fight for people rarely mentioned by Silicon Valley power brokers. They use bars and coffee shops to hold meetings, sell cookies, to fundraise. At times they are as much support group as advocate organization.

It is the return of community organizing in Silicon Valley--no foundations, no nonprofit tax ID number, no permitted marches--just everyday folks finding strength in numbers.

Telling the stories of the fallen, targeted and abused are young people who have become overnight community organizers by necessity rather than choice. They are the daughters of the slain, sons of families requested to voluntarily deport themselves and ex-detainees who got out of the Hall and are now standing outside those same walls in protest. They have become generals in a war they never volunteered for, unexpectedly recruited from their job at the mall selling phones or studying for their next big final at school. They are the people behind the headlines who are refusing to be another sad San Jose story, and they are leading us out of our time of mourning.

A Daughter's Tale: Regina Cardenas

Regina Cardenas' voicemail answers with one of her girlfriends telling you that Regina can't take the call; she's giggling through the whole message. The lightness is in stark contrast to the last time I saw Regina--a mixture of shock, loss and fury at her father's vigil. Rudy Cardenas, a father of five, was shot downtown by a state drug agent who mistook him for David Gonzalez, whom they had been staking out.

The agents chased Rudy Cardenas and shot him in a back alley. The San Jose Mercury News reports witnesses hearing Cardenas yelling, "Don't shoot!" The incident is only months apart from the killing of Cau Tran, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who was shot in her kitchen by the police 10 blocks away from where Rudy Cardenas fell. The death of Cau Tran unified a usually splintered San Jose Vietnamese community and still lingers in the minds of most San Jose residents.

When I talked to Regina at the vigil, only two days after her father's death, she spoke the language of a media spokeswoman, rather than a grieving daughter. She extolled the innocence of her father, stressed the responsibility of the system that took his life and gave appreciation to all the attendees who had shown up "for the cause," especially the ones she didn't know. "I had never been to any rallies or vigils or anything before this, but I need to start," she said with a slight smile before walking back to console another relative.

Like most 25-year-olds, Regina was at a stage of transition in her life. She was in the middle of moving in with a girlfriend in midtown San Jose and had recently picked up a new job as a materials coordinator at a Milpitas medical company. She was coaching T-ball in the Berryessa Little League. But her life since her father's death has been a balance of arranging meetings and going to them. She meets with lawyers about lawsuits, community organizations about rallies, funeral homes about costs.

Days after the vigil, Regina is talking to me over a cell phone minutes before a strategy meeting. She is coordinating with a neighborhood association to organize a march to the federal building. "We just can't let the awareness die; we need to be constantly in the media for the community to be energized." She has become masterful in talking to reporters and cameramen, who swarm her at any public demonstration she attends. "I was nervous at first talking to them, because I used to be pretty shy, but I try to say things that can't be misconstrued, and the coverage has been good." Regina hasn't taken a break since her father's death, even though it is her right as a daughter.

"I feel like I have to be strong for the family. Of course, I have breakdowns, but I don't do it in front of others. Once those start, they take a lot to stop, and that would only slow things down." When I ask her how she does it, she says her friends and family support helps, but her strength surprises even herself.

She receives a call on the other line and has to go--it's about the upcoming meeting. As I am stumbling through another offering of condolence, she interrupts me to make a pitch to come to a meeting she is having next week about how to hold enforcement agents more accountable. "Bring anybody, it doesn't even have to be people who know about my father's case, but just people for the cause. We want to have a big turnout."

With family members, Regina organized another vigil a week after the first. There were about 150 people there, notified by phone trees and bright green fliers stapled to downtown electric poles. In the corner, wearing a baseball hat covering her face, Regina raised money for funeral expenses, selling cookies and shirts with Rudy Cardenas' image topping the writing "In Loving Memory."

Weapon of Mass Mobilization: Dale Cuevas

It is hard to identify Dale Cuevas at the San Jose State University food court even as he's approaching me. He looks like every other guy here--backpack, hat, latest Timberland gear. He is a 23-year-old Filipino-American business management student, cell-phone salesman and now a target of Homeland Security.

Last December, after he took his last final at De Anza Community College, Dale's mother gave him a letter from the Homeland Security Bureau Citizenship and Immigration Services. The letter informed his family they had 70 days to voluntarily deport themselves to the Philippines. The U.S. government had rejected his family's appeal for green cards. "Since that moment, it's been like a dream I can't wake from," says Dale. The voluntary departure day has come and gone, and he's too busy saving his family to be deported.

Dale's been in Fremont for the past 19 years with his two sisters and parents since they fled political turmoil in the southern Philippines. He's about as Bay Area as you can get--slightly hip-hop, knows more Spanglish than Tagalog and is paying off car debt.

When I first met him at a community forum in a coffee shop in Union City, he was already comfortable with a microphone in his hand. "Our family coming forward may inspire other families to stand up, too," he tells the packed audience of media and immigrant-rights organizations. The professional advocates at his sides on the panel are left with nothing to say; the young man they are to speak on behalf of is doing just fine.

After Dale lays out the plans to pressure Dianne Feinstein to put forth a private bill to allow his family to stay, he vanishes into a sea of friends. They look like young Filipinos you usually see at a B-boy competition, a buzzing of Obey T-shirts and Van Dutch trucker hats. These are the foot soldiers in Dale's immigrant-rights movement. Later, at the food court, Dale jokes about how he didn't mind talking to the cute reporter from L.A. "If I stay in the country, who knows?"

The amount of media at the forum, reporters from all over the state, is impressive. Since the beginning, Dale has offered his family story to local and national publications, making media calls himself. "I saw how the lawyer's public relations guy did it with the San Francisco Chronicle, then started calling every media outlet I could think of."

Dale's been "telling like it is," speaking on the glaring contradictions of Homeland Security policies that are threatening to deport hard-working families to whomever will listen. "I mean, come on, my family is not making weapons of mass destruction."

At the food court Dale gets a call from Telemundo. "You're at my house already? I'll be there in 20 minutes, just ask my mom to let you in. OK? Peace." This Thursday Dale is mobilizing a demonstration in front of Feinstein's office in San Francisco. Like Regina, Dale wants to know how many people I can bring. "Can I put you down for 10?"

Outside Agitator: Fernando Campos

At 18, Fernando Campos looks at least 20 years younger than everyone else sitting at the meeting of Civil Rights for Children in Tutti's restaurant in south San Jose. He is not a parent, but an ex-detainee who joined the group that fights abuses within the Santa Clara Juvenile Hall as soon as he got out.

Fernando is busy folding a stack of fliers while parents are exchanging stories of recent assaults they have heard from their sons and daughters. Norm Towson, the founder of Civil Rights for Children, booms, "I just want them to stop beating up our kids and calling them assholes!" Fernando strolls by my chair and says calmly, "Don't worry if it gets a little loud; people here are just passionate because they're talking about their own kids, you know?"

Fernando was incarcerated for seven months for a mistake he still regrets, and he was both witness to and victim of abuses and insults during his stay in what he sarcastically calls the Holiday Inn. The Santa Clara Juvenile Hall, once touted as the best youth detention center in the country, is now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for abuses of inmates. Last week voters chose to place it under the jurisdiction of the Santa Clara Board of County Supervisors after years of governance by the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

"I had some good counselors, but I can count them on one hand. The rest were always putting us down and trying to intimidate us."

Fernando has no obvious obligation to try to change a system most distance themselves from. He has a good job at a medical equipment assembly company that is going to help pay for his college. He got his high school diploma while on the inside. He is helping his family pay the car and home bills. "When I was inside, my mom starting going to these meetings. I was impressed there was a group like this. Nobody else seemed to care about us."

Civil Rights for Children has been a vocal critic of Juvenile Hall, bringing a face to a normally unseen but growing population of incarcerated South Bay youth. They have protested in front of downtown, brought on media attention and investigations, and are now pushing for a "Juvenile Justice Monitor" program to inspect the institution regularly.

Scanning the room, Fernando says he met most of the sons of these parents in the Hall. "It was like we had our own little group, cause we had parents that were talking about us to each other." Intuitive well beyond his years, Fernando knows he brings something more to this group than just another pair of hands to fold fliers. "When the parents see me here and that I'm staying out of the system, I think it gives them hope, because they can see their kids in me."

He gets deeply serious when talking about the rising gang tension inside the youth and adult systems. "The gang conflict among Latinos was huge when I was inside, but I never understood why you would want to fight a brother, especially when the real enemy, the system, is right in front of us!"

If they let him, Fernando will be going back in this week. Civil Rights for Children has managed the impossible: a tour of the facility and a meeting with Juvenile Hall administrators.

As I'm walking out of Tutti's, weighted down with photocopied testimonials of letters from youth in the Hall and emails of conversations the groups had with local politicians, Fernando gives me the long-term strategic visioning. "We have to completely disassemble the whole system, then rebuild it into something we all want."


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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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