Originally posted on Medium


“There are moments in our lives that are transformational.”


The first words of José Calderón’s 2014 TEDx Talk are carried by a voice that is humble, yet trustworthy — willing to present his experiences rather than reciting a speech. Through a knack for storytelling, Calderón finds a way to expand the ways of sharing knowledge. When he talks, it is hard not to listen.

The son of immigrant farm workers, Calderón’s journey from struggling to learn English in the first grade to serving as one of the leading Latino activists, scholars, writers, and grassroots organizers in Southern California provides him with a unique perspective on how transformative our experiences can be. As Calderón dissects the transformational moments that formed the basis of his own views and sense of purpose, he recalls getting on a bus as a recent University of Colorado graduate with $57 in his pocket to hear renowned labor activist César Chávez speak at the central headquarters of farm workers. He also reflects on his mother’s endless capacity for empathy towards the underrepresented. Instead of praying to the Virgin Mary, it was routine for Calderón’s family to pray to Martin de Porres, a lesser-known Black patron saint of the poor, public health workers, service workers, and racial harmony.

Calderón’s reflections reminded me of the Bernie Sanders rally I attended when I was 17. That was where I had first met Calderón. The rally itself was a first for me, and I clearly recall how the flow of new ideas and compassion at the rally on a football field in Pomona gave me a glimmer of hope that our country would be heading towards a new path. Among the people there, I met Calderón, and we briefly spoke. Humble in nature, he did not stand out from the crowd, but seemed comfortable within it. Despite being so outspoken, he embodied all the traits of a real listener, too.

Although this collapse has unspooled the built-up despair that many are feeling, it is also brought forth a collective yearning for catharsis.

An entire election cycle later, I’m speaking to Calderón as our country is at a crossroads once again, depleted of most of the hope I had four years ago. In a series of seismic events this year, including the global COVID-19 pandemic, mass Black Lives Matter protests, and the demise of our democracy, we have been forced to confront the unstable foundation of systems and institutions that have fundamentally hindered our growth. Although this collapse has unspooled the built up despair that many are feeling, it has also brought forth a collective yearning for catharsis. Calderón remains optimistic.

Dr. José Calderón

As I begin my conversation with Pitzer College’s Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Chicano/a-Latino/a Studies through Zoom under the limitations of the pandemic, the bright Dolores Huerta poster in the background of his office wall helps diminish the distance between us. Calderón is welcoming and comforting, a quality not always present within academia. Like many other professors across the country, Calderón is still teaching virtually, but has faced difficulties during the new shift to online learning. Particularly because the class he teaches specifically emphasizes community involvement and action, an aspect that has been limited due to the restrictions of COVID-19.


I asked Calderón about the resurgence of collective action on a mass scale with the rise of Black Lives Matter, a movement that has reached new peaks in terms of mobilization this year by protesting racist and systemic police brutality that disproportionately affects Black Americans. Calderón replied that the Black Lives Matter movement has not only given him hope for a collective response to racism, he is also encouraged by the movement’s ability to explain police brutality as a symptom of what is happening in our communities in terms of issues rooted in racism and oppression. He notes that there is a wider lens to view these intersecting issues. “It is a movement that’s building unity and is trying to focus on the problems that are hurting our communities,” says Calderón. “And in the long-term, having a vision of not only multiracial unity, but thinking about how we can begin to develop a new economy that really serves the interests of our community, and not just the interest of a few to make profit is necessary.”


“Having a vision of not only multiracial unity, but thinking about how we can begin to develop a new economy that really serves the interests of our community, and not just the interest of a few to make profit is necessary.”


Black Lives Matter has drawn attention not only to police brutality, but has highlighted the systemic issues of poverty, racism, and lack of healthcare that Calderón says has excluded Black and Latino communities from overall society. He notes the reach that the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement has had globally, which reminds him of the earlier movements of Malcolm X and César Chávez, like the grape boycott led by Chávez in the late 1960s that spread to parts of Europe and Japan, Calderón notices the international parallel that the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred.


“The reason is not that we don’t have the capacity, but the structure itself has destroyed our capacity and has led many of our people into thinking that we don’t have the capacity. They teach that because they want us as farmworkers, they wanted African Americans as slaves, and they want Native Americans on reservations.” — José Calderón


A staunch advocate for the implementation of affirmative action for many years, Calderón wrote in Redlands Daily Facts in 2013 that, “Memory is short, and some critics have forgotten how segregation divided this country not too long ago.”


When I ask about how essential affirmative action is within the context of the 2020 election, where the future of affirmative action is at stake once again on the ballot with Proposition 16, Calderón admits that he is a product of the social movements that advocated for affirmative action. Reflecting on his own experience, Calderón explains that when he was a student at the University of Colorado, he was one of the only five Latinos on campus while the only African-American students present were athletes.

José Calderón (Image from Noisyroom.net)

Protests led by African-American students demanding more inclusive campuses sparked Calderón’s involvement in building takeovers and other forms of collective action that began to draw attention to the structural inequality of higher education. He further explains that the exclusion of people of color from educational institutions is intentional and has harmful effects on the psyche of racially marginalized youth. “The reason is not that we don’t have the capacity, but the structure itself has destroyed our capacity and has led many of our people into thinking that we don’t have the capacity,” Calderón explains. “They teach that because they want us as farmworkers, they wanted African-Americans as slaves, and they want Native Americans on reservations.” Through more access to higher education, he says, we can begin to infiltrate the institutions that have historically suppressed our communities in order to undo the erasure of our heritage, history, and presence.


On a more intimate note, Calderón dissected his own terrifying experience with COVID-19 this year in August. Despite being extremely cautious, Calderón’s entire immediate family was exposed to the virus, which caused Calderón to be the sickest he’s ever been. Enduring two trips to the hospital during the month that it took him to recover, Calderón still feels the lingering effects of COVID-19 today.

What also lingers is the lasting rhetoric of President Trump encouraging people to not wear masks, to open businesses and schools and overall not take the virus seriously. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites race and ethnicity as markers that contribute to underlying health conditions; thus, Black and Latino communities are more vulnerable to exposure and hospitalization for COVID-19.

Calderón recognizes this and says, “I think we’re seeing a real increase in the number of people of color that are now coming out to vote and are really motivated like never before. They are the ones that are being hit the hardest. They’ve seen grandparents, fathers, and mothers who have died and know that what the president is saying is really a form a genocide. People are dying that shouldn’t have died.”

“We are the only highly-capitalist country in the world that doesn’t have free healthcare.”

He attributes the careless loss of life on a mass scale to the lack of a national plan to combat the Coronavirus. One of Calderón’s former students, Juan De Lara, who now teaches at the University of Southern California, has researched the effects of environmental racism particularly within Southern California through our predominantly Latino and Black workforce. In his book, Inland Shift-Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California, De Lara explains that, “Work camps and barrios are just two examples of how differentiated space has been deployed to contain and control racialized bodies while at the same time making their labor available for capitol.”

The concentration of Latinos and Black Americans in underserved communities amidst the pandemic has highlighted the lack of critical infrastructure necessary to close these gaps within our community. “We are the only highly-capitalist country in the world that doesn’t have free healthcare,” he explains. Calderón, for his part, pledges to continue advocating for universal healthcare within the U.S. in the long term, as a way to fight for the communities with the most structural obstacles set before them.

I asked Calderón about the stakes on the upcoming Presidential election, and he pointed out the communities that are most at-risk if Trump were to be re-elected. Approximately 785,000 individuals on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, would risk deportation as the policy now remains in the hands of the Supreme Court. A large number of immigrants from Central America living in the U.S. on Temporary Protected Status face deportation as well. He explains that in order to combat this as best as he can, he has been doing everything to encourage people to vote in this election as resistance to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. Calderón supported Bernie Sanders earlier this year because he saw the Sanders campaign as offering a new vision of life within America by structurally improving systems and institutions. While the Biden/Harris campaign itself does not envision a new way of life, Calderón says Biden’s proposed policies will at least help restore some of what was stripped during the Trump administration.

The stakes are high, but Calderón remains hopeful, “Millions of people have already voted, so things are looking up, and I’m hopeful.” Young people, who he claims comprised the foundation of the Sanders campaign and now largely support the Biden/Harris ticket, spark most of his confidence in the future.

Melissa Ayala, a young Pomona resident who views Calderón as her mentor, highlights his commitment to supporting youth. She first met Calderón at a protest when she was 8 years old, and formed a formal relationship within him after she graduated high school in 2011 — they worked on community organizing in Pomona. “I owe a lot of personal growth to him, as he helped me find my own voice within the community,” says Ayala. “By working together, I learned to have a voice and not be afraid even when there were rightwing conservatives attacking us verbally and following us. Sometimes it was scary, but I knew if we did not fight things would remain the same.”

Before we ended our conversation, Calderón encouraged me to imagine the creation of spaces and places that can serve our communities and our people. As our future remains unclear, the capacity to create culture and construct the world around us is in our hands, no matter how hard external forces attempt to destroy us. On a last hopeful note, Calderón said confidently, “If we begin to create spaces and places that are examples of that, then you begin to build a whole new system. And in our lives, whether at home or on campus, even though you may not have any money, you will always have the capacity to create spaces and places like that — and that’s what keeps me going.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Post

The Poet Food Pantry is Safe: New Takeout System