*I interviewed Ruben Abrica in 2015. He is a founding member of the City of East Palo Alto, former mayor, recurring city council member, and currently serving as mayor once again in 2018. The San Francisco Press Club awarded this profile 2nd place in the 2017 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards. The profile was originally published in the EPA Today newspaper.*
Most people who interview Ruben Abrica ask about his government work. After all, he is one of the founding members of the City of East Palo Alto, he served as the city’s first Latino mayor, and has continued to help the community as a city council member. One thing that surprises him is that he’s never asked why he is still involved in politics. A lot of people, he pointed out, lose faith in the American government due to all the controversial injustices seen on the news. He, however, is not one of those people.
Abrica was born in Mexico and he spent most of his childhood living in Tijuana. For the first ten years of his life, he was the only child in the family. His father was absent, so his grandmother helped raise him while his mother worked in the United States.
“My grandmother always used to vote,” Abrica remembered, “She knew it was important to vote.” In fact, he later learned that his grandmother was friends with the mayor of their hometown, La Union de Guadalupe in Jalisco, Mexico.
The importance of voting resonated with him throughout the years. It still completely amazes him that East Palo Alto reached city status by only a few votes. “We won the election by just 15 votes!” he exclaimed before emphasizing that “every single vote really counts.”
When asked what has kept him motivated all these years, the former mayor told a heartwarming story from his childhood that sparked his interest in serving the community. “When I was in third grade in Tijuana, I became aware, through an incident, that no one in my family had made it past the second grade,” he remembered. His uncle, Tio Chepo, who had become Abrica’s father figure, moved to Tijuana.
Tio Chepo was quiet and serious, but he “had a nice way about him,” Abrica described. Tio Chepo had gotten a job with a furniture factory and he would even take Abrica with him to work sometimes. One afternoon, Tio Chepo came in looking for his nephew. “He said he wanted to talk to me. First I thought, ‘oh, maybe I did something wrong.’” His uncle, however, had an important question for young Abrica: “I noticed he had a little notebook and a pencil. He asked me if I could teach him to read and write.”
“It takes a lot of courage for people to say ‘I don’t know.’ Most of the time we’re going to try to avoid it, especially as an adult,” Abrica reflected. During the initial campaign to establish East Palo Alto as a city, Abrica commended those who were active despite not having a higher education. A lot of the people on the first committee didn’t know how to read or write, but they were still there trying to help. Abrica explained that he knows how difficult it is for people who can’t read and write.
After the incident with his uncle, he knew he would always keep going to school and he realized that even though he was only in third grade, he was already helping. His grandmother had him help neighbors read letters. For those who feel that they don’t have much to offer, he had this to say: “At any point in time, you are already able to help those who have less. You don’t have to wait to be a super-something. Wherever you are right now, you can already be of help even though you need help. You already have something. Pass it on.”
As an immigrant from a low-income household himself, Abrica is not blind to the challenges that young people in East Palo Alto face. He moved to southern California in 7th grade to live with his mother. As he entered high school in the U.S., Abrica explained that he was automatically placed in the lowest classes because he had not mastered the English language yet. He laughed as he remembered that the reason he was not allowed to take French was because he didn’t speak English well enough. For a Spanish speaker, however, French is actually not that difficult to learn since both languages share similar grammatical structures and are of Latin descent.
After he was denied the French course, he was denied the Algebra course, too. Again, he felt that his intelligence was being measured by his Mexican descent and lack of English words. Luckily, he remembered that his middle school teacher had said, “make sure they give you Algebra.” Abrica later realized that his teacher had seen students being treated this way in the past and was determined to get incoming freshman into the appropriate classes.
Unfortunately, the school still lacked confidence in the young Mexican student—even after he had gotten straight A’s. Abrica explained that he was asked to speak to the school psychologist. Apparently, the school was skeptical about his intelligence. His grades were crossreferenced with all his teachers and he was even asked to take tests (presumably, IQ tests). Abrica chuckled at the ridiculousness of the situation. His intelligence was no joke, though. He graduated with a B.A. degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles, spent a year at the University of Montpellier in France, did graduate work in linguistics at the University of California at San Diego, and went on to receive his M.A. in Education from Stanford University.
Once the Stanford graduate became involved with the soon-to-be City of East Palo Alto, he became more aware of the issues that residents faced.
Housing issues, for example, were prominent. “I went through every single apartment on the west side two or three times,” he said. “I started finding out how abusive some of the managers and landlords were,” he recalled.
As he rallied to get people involved, Abrica felt a sense of responsibility to help the community. Many of the residents that he spoke to did not have a college background, many didn’t speak English, and as mentioned before, many couldn’t read or write. The people of this new city motivated him even further. Abrica made sure to mention that people can find motivation within themselves, too.
“Sometimes other people are not looking out for you because they don’t care or because they can’t,” he said, “Nobody ever sat down with me to say ‘Can I help you with your homework?’ because they couldn’t.” Abrica seemed confident that everyone can find something that they’re passionate about and that they, too, can pursue it. “You just have to find something in you,” he emphasized before offering some reassurance, “You have it.”
The city council member has not lost his faith in the community or in the American government. He said that he cares about people and he firmly believes that there are good politicians out there, who do care about people. As he continues his work with the City of East Palo Alto and as he continues to hear the stories of community members, Abrica hopes that young residents will remember that they have the power to help— even if they’re only in the third grade.
When he was in high school, Abrica went back to Mexico to visit his Tio Chepo. “I saw him with his pen and his little notebook. He now had become a supervisor,” he smiled proudly. “It made me cry.”