Greetings were exchanged and wine poured as the Afro-Brazilian dance group Viver Brazil pounded the drums to a beat that echoed throughout the California Plaza amphitheater in Downtown Los Angeles, commencing a nonprofit’s debut Zócalo series.  

The Latino advocacy and outreach group, Alliance for a Better Community (ABC) partnered with the performing arts nonprofit, Grand Performances, to curate song and dance presentations that pay tribute to the county’s more than 4.8 million Latinos, which account for 48% of the total population. The October 13 event drew inspiration from the Zócalo in Mexico City, the main ceremonial center in the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which served as a gathering place for celebration and honoring the civilization’s rulers. 

The evening hosted nearly 200 attendees, consisting of partners, honorees and family members and started with a moment of silence for the Israel-Hamas war. That was followed by a speech from ABC’s Executive Director Vanessa Aramayo, which touched on the organization’s missions and values and the intent of launching the series to wrap up Hispanic Heritage Month.  

SEIU-99 members Conrado Guerrero, Elizabeth Thomas Parker and Deanna Robles (left to right) are praised by the organization’s Political Leader Lester Garcia for their work on the union’s executive board. Photo courtesy of ABC.

“Our goals have been very simple. How do we improve our educational system, how do we improve our health system and how do we make more economic opportunities available for everyone in Los Angeles?” Aramayo said. “The Zócalo series that we are launching is really meant to address a variety of issues that are impacting our community and to bring experts, and people together, but also a need to incorporate the arts.” 

LAUSD Latina board members share personal experiences

After the opening performance, Aramayo led a panel with two LAUSD Board of Education members and former teachers: Kelly Gonez, the youngest Latina to be elected and serve as president, and Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who studied public interest policy and race at UCLA School of Law after her time in the classroom. Both women credited their accomplishments to their early lived experiences, which shaped their views on education. Gonez remembered her Peruvian immigrant mother’s hustle to finish adult education night classes while working a day job and Franklin recalled graduating alongside only half of her incoming freshman class at Narbonne High School in Harbor City. 

The two discussed the need for college readiness programs and the lack of resources in the LAUSD and other inequities Latinos face in the educational system, which align with the areas of opportunity ABC aims to address. According to the California School Boards Association, Latinos are more highly concentrated in high-poverty schools than any other student group, which limits educational opportunities. Franklin believes that forming partnerships and tackling inequalities together is crucial to accelerating educational progress for students. 

Afro-Brazilian dance group Viver Brazil opens ABC’s Zócalo ceremony before guests are honored. Photo courtesy of ABC.

“We can get every kid to be able to choose college — if that’s what they want — if we’re working together and are centered on our values, and keeping their stories in our hearts as we’re making these big decisions,” Franklin said.

Honorees took the stage for a brief moment

Among the honorees were the Service Employees International Union Local 99 (SEIU-99), Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, former president of the LAUSD Board of Education Monica Garcia and a posthumous honoring of Gloria Molina, who was the first Latina to serve in the state assembly, LA city council and on the county’s board of supervisors. 

Deanna Robles, Elizabeth Thomas Parker and Conrado Guerrero, three SEIU-99 executive board members who led the LAUSD strike last March, took the stage on behalf of the union and were recognized for their advocacy in education and employee contract negotiations. 

Carrillo was acknowledged after the union, focusing her message on California’s eugenics laws from 1909-1979 that forcibly and unknowingly sterilized an estimated 20,000 people, according to CalMatters. A Boyle Heights native, the assembly member particularly kept the Latinas of the 1960s and 70s who signed over their rights on a paper not written in their language at Los Angeles General Medical Center which would prevent them from ever getting pregnant in mind. After joining the state assembly in 2017, Carrillo and her team passed a policy that allocated $7.2 million to compensate eugenics victims, which she donated $300,000 of to ABC to help find and make restitution for the women affected.

Sponsors helped pull the event together

The event cost roughly $30,000 to organize, Aramayo told CALÓ NEWS, and was sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Telemundo, Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), the California Community Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.

ABC Board Chair Audrey Dow is grateful for the more than 20 organizations that came together to make the first Zócalo event possible and is confident that ABC’s outreach work will secure their partnership going forward.  

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo trades a certificate of recognition for artwork of herself cruising in the back of a car from ABC Board Member Rosie Arroyo. Photo courtesy of ABC.

“I hope that [our partners’ and attendees’] takeaway from tonight is that they continue to see the value that ABC is bringing to the community,” Dow said. “That they continue to look for opportunities and think about how we can partner together again to ensure that all Angelenos have upward mobility in the city and that students feel like they’re attending educational institutions that are truly serving them and helping them reach their dreams.”

ABC’s history touches families in the community

ABC was founded in 2001 by a group of Latino civic engagement and business leaders after the group met informally for years under the name “Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club,” where they discussed the inequitable challenges Latino’s faced in the city. More than two decades in the making, ABC has networked with hundreds of organizations and families across Los Angeles, reiterating the importance of college enrollment and retention, Latino voter participation, equal health care and more. Their influence has shaped the way Angelenos like Huntington Park resident Susana Martinez fight for change in her community.

“As a mother who likes to learn and interact with people, I feel that I’m a voice for those in my community who don’t have the courage to speak up or are afraid to because of their immigration status,” Martinez told CALÓ NEWS. “I tell my kids that if they’re not speaking up at school, then it’s my role as a mom to speak up and advocate for them as well and I proudly wear the jacket of a mother, of an advocate and someone who cares for her community.”

Martinez has been an ABC parent leader for five years after hearing about the nonprofit from her oldest son’s high school. She enjoys canvassing throughout her neighborhood come election time and believes she is a trusted messenger and advocate for families like her own.