By Tony Aguilar
Trying to get your community involved in anything is a daunting task, much less in the area of policy and procedures, but this very noble undertaking could not be as effective without strong community organizers such as Yvonna Cazares, of the Coachella chapter of ICUC.
ICUC, the Inland Congregations United for Change, brings people together to strengthen families and improve communities. The organization works to develop leadership capacity in the communities it is involved in. It equips individuals with the tools they need to meet with officials at the state and local levels that are making decisions that directly affect them.
ICUC is involved in six congregations around the Coachella Valley, as well as the community of Duroville, a dilapidated trailer home park in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
Cazares was born and raised in the Coachella Valley. She knows and has experienced the issues facing her community firsthand. Cazares’ story is one of “opportunity,” as she so eloquently phrases it. Her parents immigrated to the Coachella Valley from Mexico and like many immigrant parents, they quickly realized that an education would lead their family and children to a better quality of life.
Cazares was quick to adhere to her parents’ wishes and found herself at the University of California Los Angeles straight out of high school. She surrounded herself with like-minded individuals and organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana de Aztlan) and LASA (Latin American Studies Association).
“I really took advantage of the opportunity to meet with other people from all walks of life, especially other Latinos that shared the same experiences,” Cazares said.
In Los Angeles, Cazares developed a level of activism and political consciousness and learned skills that undoubtedly help her in her role as a community organizer for ICUC.
After leaving UCLA, Cazares moved to the state capitol of Sacramento where she worked as a lobbyist for a small minority consulting firm that tackled issues pertaining to environmental health. After some time in Sacramento, Cazares was faced with the difficult decision of staying up north, or returning to her roots and making a difference in her community. Cazares followed her heart and returned to her native Coachella Valley, where she once again became involved in her community and the issues affecting her and those around her. As a community organizer for ICUC, Cazares helps develop members of the community so they can in turn make a difference.
“Maybe members of our community don’t know English, maybe they don’t know how to tackle certain questions,” she said. “I don’t know what it is but somehow the community needs to be equipped with those kinds of tools.”
What is it that drives individuals such as Cazares? Teens joke about leaving the valley and never coming back but Cazares did just the opposite. She was surrounded by big metropolitan cities such as L.A. and Sacramento and all that they had to offer—the nightlife and social scenes that the desert back home could never live up to. Yet Cazares came back to her community and made a difference, not for the pay check but because it’s where here heart truly lies… it lies in educating her community and helping others find their voices so they can better their lives… much like her parents’ reasons for coming to America.
ICUC—Driving Immigrants to Exercise their Rights
By Jesus Vargas
Illegal immigrants come to the U.S, abuse the system, live a life beyond their means, take jobs from “real” Americans and drain public resources. These are common complaints about undocumented immigrants.
The reality is that undocumented immigrants have to deal with low wages, poor living conditions, communication problems and the threat of deportation.
In addition, some illegal immigrants report being unfairly targeted by police. Since most do not have driver’s licenses, their cars often end up getting towed.
There are some, however, who are fighting to change this police practice. The Coachella Valley chapter of the ICUC (Inland Congregations United for Change, which is part of a broader PICO organization) has already tackled the issue in the Coachella Valley.
Since the usual impound minimum is 30 days, the cost of retrieving the cars is too much for the majority of immigrants who get their cars towed, according to an organizer for ICUC. They end up losing their only form of transportation and this often leads to their livelihoods being threatened, as they can no longer get to work.
This is an especially pronounced problem in the Eastern Coachella Valley where there is a sizable immigrant and migrant worker population. Since no city in the EVC has its own police force, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department patrols the area and by talking to community members, ICUC found that the department’s towing policy was unfavorable to illegal immigrants. If they are stopped, it is the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department policy to tow their cars. While some individual officers may give them some time to call a licensed driver to pick up the car, that is not always the case.
In Cathedral City, ICUC organized ordinary people to appeal to the City Council in order to change the city’s towing policy. They succeeded in changing the policy due to the public outcry. The Cathedral City Police Department now allows unlicensed drivers 30 minutes to arrange for someone to pick up their cars before they are towed.
This success led to other cities, including the City of Los Angeles, to alter their towing policies to be more favorable to under-privileged immigrants.
At the heart of the ICUC’s efforts are community organizers like Yvonna Cazares. Her involvement in advocacy positions during her time at UCLA and Cal State University San Bernardino provided her with the experience needed to organize movements such as the towing policy change.
“As an organizer you leave your ideology at the door,” she says.
She likens her job to that of a sports coach in that she gives people the skills and direction for them to succeed but ultimately when they’re on the field, it’s up to them to perform. She says that she could go to graduate school on the East Coast or leave for whatever reason, but she wants people to have the ability to speak up for themselves. While the pay may not be the best, she says the sense of involvement and self-satisfaction from being active in the community more than makes up for it.
Possibly due to the ICUC’s success, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department implemented a so-called pilot program where individuals who were stopped at checkpoints in the Eastern Coachella Valley were given the same 30 minutes as in Cathedral City to get a licensed driver to pick up their car. The program was deemed a success by Riverside County Sheriff’s Department Captain Raymond Gregory but Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff declined to change the towing policy, Cazares said.
While victory was snatched out of the ICUC’s hand at the last minute, they have vowed to fight on. Believing that it was state policy that got in the way, they are now mounting a challenge at the state level with the help of other PICO-affiliated organizations.
The ICUC and other PICO organizations fight for social justice, going head-to-head with powerful public and private sector officials, but they insist that there has to be an emphasis on talking to regular people.
“It all starts with conversations,” Cazares said. It seems that ICUC and Cazares will be having many more of those in the near future.
They have to, in order to find the latest problem to combat.