Yesenia Sanchez is just another face in the crowd here on campus. Her petite frame and meek voice give the impression that she is fresh out of high school in her words, “young and stupid.”
She started taking classes at GCC the summer of 2003, right after she graduated from Verdugo Hills High School, at age 19.
She started her freshman year at Hoover high school in Glendale and ended at Franklin High School in Highland Park. It was not so much the fact that she moved from city to city that led her to flunk ninth grade; it was her attitude toward academics.
“I went to class whenever I wanted, I cut class whenever I wanted, and I did whatever I wanted,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to graduate high school ’cause I could [not] have cared less.”
The move from L.A. to Tujunga was awkward, but she had to adjust.
“I used to live in Echo Park before I moved to Tujunga,” said Sanchez. “Belmont High School is completely different from Verdugo Hills because there’s a lot of white people. To me it was a complete culture shock.”
Life in Tujunga, for an outspoken Latina who was not about to take crap from anybody, had its difficulties.
She recalls walking around the neighborhood and seeing Old Glory waving proudly along with the Confederate flag. At school she would constantly get into confrontations with her peers; at one point she punched a girl in the face for calling her a bitch, an act that resulted in suspension. Confrontations also unfolded due to the typical high school attitudes and racial issues.
“I had a really hard time at that school, there is just so much racism with all these students,” said Sanchez. “They use the words ‘wetback’ and ‘nigger’ as if it was nothing, and that pissed me off. I wasn’t gonna take that shit.”
But she refused to let any of them, especially teachers, get the best of her. Even when they would make comments like “oh, Yesenia, you don’t have to go to school. You’re just going to have kids and be on welfare,” she would just shrug it off and move on.
Her negative outlook toward the United States and how Latinos in the U.S. are treated sparked Sanchez’s interest in history.
When she set foot on the GCC campus, however, her interest in history expanded after taking a Chicano studies course she took with Professor Carlos Ugalde. Through slides of Ugalde’s travels, Sanchez familiarized herself with the history of the Mayans, the Aztec ruins and the diverse people of the world.
“That [class] really opened my eyes to the whole world,” she said.
It was also in Ugalde’s class that she learned about the Association of Latin American Students (ALAS) club, which Sanchez has been actively involved with for two years. Her work as a member of ALAS led to her involvement with the Justice Coalition and the creation of the Women’s International Liberation League (WILL), which she co-founded with her sister Cindy. It all started when Sanchez and her sister were having a conversation, discussing the fact that there was no club that dealt with issues that affected women. Also, Sanchez is a feminist.
It is when she is out in Plaza Vaquero, exercising her right to free speech, that she makes up for her meek voice and petite frame. As a result, she’s been called a leader by some of her peers. But “what the hell does that mean?” asked Sanchez.
At a protest on campus, she was confronted by some students who disagreed with her political views. Things got heated that afternoon when members of the Justice Coalition started yelling at the Army recruits.
“[That protest] was the day I started yelling and speaking freely,” recalled Sanchez.
She credits this day as the day that triggered her to go to protests and marches. She also thinks that this protest scared off Army recruiters from coming to campus on a frequent basis.
“I don’t think GCC students are looking to enlist. This is kind of a middle class community-people are looking to transfer and doing other things besides the Army. I guess we scared them off,” she joked.
Even before the immigration issue became a hot topic in the media, Sanchez had attended protests against the war in Iraq. On May 1, she went to a march against immigration reform. She has also gone to protests against the minute men where she confronts them and protests their racism.
“When you are using words like ‘wetback,’ ‘beaner,’ that’s racism,” she said. “They can say whatever they want, but they are racist-I think they’re scared, that the United States is no longer going to be white America.
“The problems in the U.S. are the Iraq war, the corruption in congress, the president doing whatever he wants, but the immigrants are the scapegoats right now. If it’s not the immigrants, 10 years from now it’s gonna be gay marriage again. It’s whatever issue they [politicians] feel is necessary to get into office.”
Her passion for politics and her eagerness to create social change is admired. Sociology professor Richard Kamei recalls having Sanchez in his class.
“When I first met Yesenia I could already sense that she was extremely dynamic,” he said. “What I love about her is her ability to overcome a lot of the obstacles that get in the way of our students. She has also been able to maintain an extremely active life, in the sense of being politically conscious and not only talking the talk, but walking the walk.”
Another student activist and Sanchez’s friend, Jo Takarabe, has worked closely with Sanchez in several ALAS, WILL and Justice Coalition-sponsored events. She admires Sanchez and her “amazing personal strength and passion,” which she credits as being characteristics that helped her survive the L.A. school system.
“It seems that she didn’t receive the support or encouragement from her instructors that is needed to help students excel in school,” said Takarabe. “Rather she came across neglectful and sometimes blatantly racist teachers, but despite all of these obstacles, Yesenia has excelled and achieved so much.”
One of the achievements Takarabe refers to is Sanchez’s acceptance to both UCLA and Berkeley.
She found out that she had been accepted to Berkeley on May 1, May Day, also the day of the immigration march. Sanchez chose Berkeley over UCLA due to its history and the opportunities that the Bay Area was offering.
“[The] Bay area seems a lot more progressive than Los Angeles,” she said. “In terms of politics, I felt that Berkeley has more to offer to someone like me who is into history and anything that involves politics.”
During the ’60s, Berkeley was famous for its student activism. The Free Speech Movement of 1964 began when the university tried to remove political pamphleteers from campus.
Sanchez is the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first to attend a university. How did a rebellious teen manage to turn her life around? “I have no idea how the hell I got here,” said Sanchez in disbelief. “I don’t even know how I got from almost being a high school dropout to going to Berkeley.
I just came to GCC, took classes, enjoyed my time here, and that’s it. My sister always told me that I could do it, in life, that’s all you need. Having one positive person in my life has really helped me. One day I woke up, and I just said, ‘I guess I’m just gonna do my homework.’ Now I’m going to Berkeley.”
Once she obtains her bachelor’s in history at Berkeley, she hopes to go to law school and focus on human rights law. Her objective is to work on an international level.
“There’s a lot of human rights violations all over the world and no one is being held responsible for what they do. My job would be to hold those responsible for their war crimes.”
Her main focus right now is to finish the semester. It has not hit her yet that she will be attending Berkeley in the fall; it has not even hit her family. Sanchez is sure that it will become a big deal once she is packed and ready to go.
For now, she tries to put the pieces together, think about where she came from and where she is going.
“I’ve done a lot of things that I’m not proud of. Resorting to violence isn’t something I’m proud of,” she said. “You live and you learn, fall, get back up again. That’s been my whole life.
I’m gonna achieve that American dream but on my definition and my terms, not on the ‘American dream, you can pick yourself up from the bootstraps.’ Obviously I did have some problems growing up. I was poor, but I’m still poor-[I’m gonna] go out there and prove to people that Latinas aren’t just women who have kids.
“Latinas are going to Berkeley and going to UCLA. Latinas are getting an education. They want to change their communities, and they want to help. I’m gonna achieve the American dream-doing what makes me happy.”