By Brenda R. Rincón,
INDIO, Calif. – A large poster hangs above Victor Manuel Pérez’s desk at his district headquarters, with the words “This is our moment, this is our time” etched atop a pensive Barack Obama.
This certainly seems to be the case for Pérez. At 40, the Coachella Democrat is already in his second term in the California State Assembly. Pérez, the son of farmworkers who went on to earn a graduate degree from Harvard University, grew up in the district he now represents.
In his youth, he says to the four Coachella Unincorporated student reporters seated across from him, he accepted the realities of his upbringing, such as unsafe streets and lack of medical insurance.
“I had problems with my teeth,“ says Pérez. “When I was in pain, I had to wait until the end of the week so we could go to Mexicali.”
“Equity, Equality, Fairness, Access, Opportunity”
After graduating from Coachella Valley High School, Pérez attended the University of California at Riverside. It was there, he says, that he underwent a transformation.
“I became an angry young Chicano,” he says emphatically.
He joined MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and went on to form Unión Estudiantil de la Raza (Student Union for the People). He began questioning the things he once accepted as truths.
“Equity, equality, fairness, access, opportunity – what do these things look like, and how do you break it down? Is it access to health care, so you don’t have to go to Mexicali?”
The Chicano Studies/Political Science student began to understand how he could use his education to bring social justice to his community.
“It was partly growing up, seeing my parents come home from picking, so tired. It was partly seeing the homeboys ending up in the prison system or dying young. This has everything to do with me getting into politics.”
Pérez tells the story of losing a childhood friend to street violence.
“Alejandro was shot and killed on the same street where we played hide and seek and played football,” says the married father of two. “I named my youngest son after him so that I would never forget him.”
The pain is evident as he speaks.
“It still hurts,” he says quietly. “When I learned about injustice, I knew I was going into politics.”
Turning the Tables on Young Journalists
The walls of Pérez’s office are adorned with photographs, numerous awards and proclamations, Chicano artwork, and his Harvard degree.
Before being elected to the Assembly in 2008, he worked as a schoolteacher, a youth advocate, a community healthcare director and served on the board of the Coachella Valley Unified School District.
But instead of talking about his career and telling the stories behind the items displayed on his walls, Pérez turns the tables on the young journalists. He wants to hear their stories.
One by one, the students introduce themselves and answer his questions about their schools, families, and future plans.
It turns out he knows the father of one reporter. He remembers another student from speaking at his high school. He went to high school with the uncle of yet another reporter. In fact, the Assemblymember is fairly certain he knew this particular young man as a baby.
The young journalists, impressed by Pérez’s ability to connect with each of them, are finally given an opportunity to ask their questions.
Guided by His Moral Compass
Pérez listens intently as reporter Ivan Delgado, a Coachella resident and student at College of the Desert, asks how the Assemblymember deals with opposition.
“One thing I’ve learned in politics is you can’t satisfy everybody,” he says. “There is always criticism. It goes with the territory.”
The Assemblymember recalls being interviewed live on a Univision station. Instead of focusing on policy, he says, people called in to complain about his beard.
“Policy is the substance. Politics is all the craziness, the criticism. I’ve learned to grow a thick skin. It hurts sometimes, but I know I’m doing it for the right reason. Sometimes I ask myself, why am I doing this? Then I go back to my principles, my moral compass. I remind myself that it’s not just about me.”
“There is Something Special About Us”
Reporter Aurora Saldivar, a Thermal resident and College of the Desert student, asks him to share some of his recent victories.
“In the early days, I was visiting the trailer parks, where folks were drinking arsenic and paying a lot of money for it,” he says.
He knew action was necessary. It was easy for those in charge to blame the poor infrastructure on a lack of resources, but he says it was a lack of will that was truly to blame.
“Classism still exists,” Pérez says. “We were able to lower the rates, legislation was passed and signed by the Governor. Now, if there are high levels of arsenic, the owner needs to alert the residents and ensure the cost of water is reasonable.”
Another victory was bringing the California State Assembly Select Committee Status of Boys and Men of Color Hearing to Coachella earlier this summer.
“We put Coachella on the map of the State Legislature. People know where Coachella is, that we have a lot of ganas and a lot of corazón,” he says passionately. “We are known throughout California and the United States, and beyond. There is something about us, something special about us.”
“We Can Do a Lot More”
Reporter Tony Aguilar, a Thermal resident transferring to the University of Redlands, asks Pérez to expand on the future of the sub-standard trailer parks in the Eastern Coachella Valley.
“We can do a lot more,” he says. “I am having a tough time convincing the Governor to release the (Redevelopment Agency) funds. I may have to introduce legislation, but everyone (in the Assembly) gets territorial. Why am I going to vote for this, when I have my own issues in my district?”
According to Pérez, municipalities throughout the state misused their Redevelopment Agencies by funding projects such as golf courses over projects such as affordable housing.
“Because of those abuses,” he says, “Everyone lost – and the most vulnerable are stuck in the middle.”
Switching Easily Back and Forth
A staffer peeks into his office and alerts Pérez that an important call is on hold. He is scheduled to be interviewed live by a Spanish-language Salinas radio station in a few minutes. He takes the call on speaker so the students can listen in.
The disc jockey asks in Spanish what questions the Assemblymember like asked during the interview.
“I can answer whatever question you have,” Pérez answers in Spanish. He turns to the students and says, “After a while, this becomes second nature, a part of the job.”
He switches from Spanish to English and back again as easily as he switches from subject to subject.
Pérez dives into the specifics of the California Agriculture and Service Worker Act he is proposing, which would create a permit program enabling unauthorized workers in the agricultural and service sectors to work legally in California without fear of deportation.
“Without the immigrant, there is no economy in California,” he tells the listeners of the Salinas radio station in Spanish. “Without the immigrant, there is no economy in the United States. This must be recognized.”
“Push the Agenda, Push the Envelope”
“We have to be selfish to a degree, but as you’re successful, your community, your barrio, your society is successful. You are connected to humanity directly and indirectly,” Pérez says to the students as their time together comes to an end.
“Your voice as youth counts. Push the agenda, push the envelope,” he says. “Have high expectations, don’t settle. I’ve never been one to settle.”
The young journalists file out of their Assemblymember’s office, inspired and hopeful that one day in the not-too-distant future, it will be their moment, their time.
Brenda Rincon is the coordinator/editor of Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media project of New America Media. Tony Aguilar, Ivan Delgado, Johnny Flores, and Aurora Saldivar contributed to this story.