My family is from a small rural town, Pearl Lagoon, in Nicaragua. At the time of our departure from Nicaragua, the country was in deep conflict—fighting the Reagan-backed Contra and Sandinista war. At the root of this war was a country trying to win social equity and maintain its natural wealth vs. the predator who wanted to gain control for its own economic ambitions. All the while, American media spun it as the United States trying to save yet another democratically challenged region.
We moved to East Palo Alto, California. A town that came into being by the driving force of its residents. There was no other city at the time that truly accepted people of color, so they created their own. It was a small start but a grand effort and message of self-determination. East Palo Alto inherited many burdens: a chemical waste plant, a county dump, land that sits on top of a water bed, and power lines over the city that emit electromagnetic waves. East Palo Alto looks very different from the neighboring city of Palo Alto. Palo Alto bears large green trees, smoothly paved streets, many parks and open spaces, grocery stores, and recreational spaces.
I was 12 when I got my first job. Myself, a couple of my cousins, and other neighborhood kids sold candy—50 cents for every $5 candy bar sold and $1 for every $6 candy bar sold. The remaining money went to this white guy. We knocked on doors for hours at a time. No break, no water, no nothing.
My older cousins knew it was wrong and would plot ways to get away with this candy and the money we made, to send a big ‘screw you’ message to this man. But we never had the nerve to carry it out. Needless to say, I didn’t stay on long.
A few months later, my cousin Lourdes became involved with Youth United for Community Action (YUCA). She was more aware of inequities and felt the purpose to address them. She would use our previous employer as an example and make statements like, “I bet he
wouldn’t go into the white neighborhoods and recruit them white kids to go on those long-ass trips and barely make $15 a day.”
She soon recruited my older cousin Travis. At the time, a classmate of his had recently died by climbing a power line located in the nearby Baylands. He touched a wire, was electrocuted, and fell to his death. There was no barrier around this structure that resembled a jungle gym to prevent children—or anyone unauthorized—from becoming familiar with it. No signs, no spikes,?no accountability. PG&E placed the blame on the property owners and the property owners placed the blame on PG&E. Our community refused to let this young boy’s death be in vain. YUCA called a press conference and Travis asked me to write a speech. It was my first speech at 13 years old. You know wrong when you hear it. I have continued with the organization ever since.
Annie Loya, 24, is executive director of Youth United for Community Action (YUCA) in East Palo Alto, California.