Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Making of an Activist

By CARLA OSORIO VELIZ

My family would always joke around that I am not your typical person. It’s true. At 15 years old I was part of a play to speak out against domestic violence and HIV in the Latino community. I was also part of an Advisory Board at Girls Inc. to foster the voices and creativity of young girls of color. Now, I sit back and I’m grateful for the journey I am part of, a journey of struggle but also of love and community. It’s what I share with my students in my Sociology classes at East L.A. Community College — “trust in your journey and visions”. “Our ancestors already provided the path, they were always dreaming of us.”

My name is Carla Osorio Veliz. I am Guatemalan native but have been raised in East Los Angeles since 1991. Immigrating to the United States from Guatemala was not easy. My mom brought my brother and I as toddlers by herself to meet with my father. Leaving family and friends behind to travel north for what all immigrants think will be a better life. She imagined having a family united but things did not work out that way.

My parents separated when I was 12 years old. It was unexpected for me of course as what I normalized changed dramatically. I think those two episodes; migrating and my parent’s separation have created some trauma in my life because you do not want drastic changes to occur in one’s life. You do not know what will happen next and you have to build yourself up with strong resiliency.

However, looking back to those two episodes now at 30 years old I feel it is not as much as to what other people have experienced. My grandmother from my mom’s side also left Guatemala to come and help my mom raise my brother and I. When we would come back home from middle school she would have lunch ready and would share stories about when she was a child. One thing that resonates with me all of the time is her grandmother’s stories; how she was born in 1886 and was a strong woman. My grandmother says she feels she inherited that from her grandmother; that legacy of being strong and resilient.

Guatemala is a country in Central America. It’s probably smaller than the state of Texas but it’s rich in land and Mayan culture. This is what also keeps me going, the thought of what our ancestors went through. We do stand on the shoulders of giants.

After my parents’ separation, my mom had no other choice than to become independent and the family’s breadwinner. She worked hard but also found resources and community for us to get involved. I remember at 13 going to different women’s homes in Highland Park and playing basketball with their children. It was fun. I think it’s what kept us from becoming depressed in the urban jungle. The beauty of being working-class is the community we find within our neighborhoods, in the barrios, we feel happy just playing outside in the alley or sharing commonalities with other working-class families. I was never ashamed of being working-class. I actually found it a virtue because we were blessed with resources from each other. One mother will bring the agua de Jamaica; while the other brought the tamales. That’s a great meal already. I was fortunate to grew up within a matriarchy, because it’s where I learned how to co-build community.

At age 15 my mother met Rosie Ramos. She is a social worker and a therapist. My mother and grandmother studied Dramatic Art in Guatemala. They are amazing actresses and storytellers. My mom took my brother and I for auditions to a play “Behind Closed Doors” about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS in the Latin@ community. I was excited to be part of this troupe and new experience. We auditioned and got the parts. Theater is magical because you can become any role you want and educate the community about social issues without being too dogmatic. It was a playground for us. I think such experience opened up my heart since we had to travel to different domestic violence shelters and perform the play to survivors. We would all end up crying with them, definitely a beautiful experience for me since it’s where I realized I wanted to be of service and be a social worker for social justice.

These experiences enabled me to pursue a B.A. in Sociology from UC Irvine and then also an M.A. in Social Work from USC in 2012. I know that my mother wanted my brother and I to be involved in our community to learn more about ourselves and also pursue a career following our dreams. I am fortunate that my family encourages me to pursue my dreams and not a career where I would be miserable without a purpose in life. In addition, I have been able to formulate my own views about life and believe in the relevant message that “another world is possible.”

In my years at UC Irvine I did not only spent my time studying and learning from my professors but also organizing against the university’s unjust working practices against service workers such as landscape, food, and janitorial workers. Students from working-class, Chican@, Muslim, Central-American, and black race and class backgrounds felt particularly connected to the worker-struggle at UC Irvine. We felt that if the workers’ stories paralleled to our family’s stories and connected more to the workers than to university culture. The workers were being outsourced and for 20 years they would get pay less than the minimum wage with no vacation and/or health benefits. We felt an enormous responsibility to do something and be in solidarity and be in struggle with the workers.

We formed an organization on campus and also sought resources from the local union AFSCME to help us organize and even gained support from some of the professors. The worker-student alliance struggle lasted for three years from rallies, flier-ing, and meetings, to labor-university negotiations where we reached victory to have food and landscape workers become direct university employees. UC Irvine was one of the last universities to practice these unfair conditions. The struggled continued after 2008 to have janitorial workers be directly hired; mostly women from Mexico and Central America. This experience opened up my eyes and mind to the university’s racist and classist practices and how as individuals we need to take a stand to struggles under this capitalist system in every corner we find ourselves at. I will never forget this as part of my journey and I continue to commemorate chants such as, “The worker struggle has no borders!” especially during this neo-fascist era.

Carla Osorio Veliz is a community social worker and an adjunct lecturer at East Los Angeles Community College in the Social Sciences Department. She received her B.A. in Sociology from UC Irvine in 2008 and her Masters in Social Work from USC in 2012. Carla has extensive experience working in different social services non-profits providing community based projects to prevent violence in low-income communities. She is the co-founder of two collectives Community Education for Social Action (2011) and Solidarity House of the South (2015). She enjoys reciting social justice poetry with 3 Generaciones and Youth in Resistance and will be launching a non-profit organization Generaciones en Accion with her family in 2017. Carla was raised in East Los Angeles and was born in Guatemala.

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