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Protesters Win Deal From Gov.: Pair End Hunger Strike After Schwarzenegger Agrees to Refinance School District's Loan

Susan Notes:
Whether or not the protestors got all their demands met, one thing is clear: They forced high-level politicians to acknowledge them and the problems they highlighted. Note that the governor "sent aides." High-level politicos only mix with the public in pre-election campaign events.

Ignore that what they achieved is a "far cry from the ambitious list of demands the protesters had hoped to achieve." They made politicos of both parties blink and that is a big plenty.

When are the rest of us going to break the silence surrounding the destruction of public education?

A profile of Cesar Cruz follows the article below.

The address of Downer Elementary School, which offers bilingual education at every grade level, where Mr. Cruz works, is:
1777 Sanford Avenue
San Pablo, CA 94806-4731

I have not been able to find information on Israel Haros-Lopez.

SACRAMENTO — After nearly a month of forsaking everything but liquids, a handful of hunger strikers this week accomplished something veteran lawmakers have yet to figure out how to do: force Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to appease them.

A 25-day fast, much of it conducted in a park adjacent to the Capitol, ended Friday after the governor agreed to refinance a state loan to the West Contra Costa Unified School District — serving Richmond and several other small cities on the east side of San Francisco Bay — so that the interest rate would be under 2%, rather than 5.7%.

The loan's initial rate outraged parents and others because the financially troubled school district's debt has forced it to cut athletics, libraries, music and other programs.

The concession was a far cry from the ambitious list of demands the protesters had hoped to achieve.

The list included full funding of Proposition 98, which is supposed to guarantee a minimum level of public school financial support; equitable funding of all schools; and forgiving all of the school district's debt.

Nonetheless, two remaining hunger strikers from an original group of nine protesters were given a hero's welcome at a news conference Friday.

Cesar Cruz, 30, and Israel Haros-Lopez, 27, in wheelchairs because they were weakened by their fast, were joined by Jessica Vasquez, 20, who broke her fast Thursday after organizers became worried about her condition.

Long-term fasting can cause permanent health damage.

"This is such a beautiful step in the right direction," said Cruz, who wept through much of the news conference.

When the "Fast4Education" hunger strike, which had begun outside Oakland City Hall, arrived in Sacramento last month it was viewed as just one more attention-seeking event of the type that regularly occur outside the Capitol.

But the group succeeded in drawing news coverage and the interest of Democratic legislators in the Assembly.

Earlier this week, several legislators, including Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles), introduced a resolution to recognize the fast and urged the governor to refinance the balance of the school district's loan, which now costs it $1.7 million a year.

As the Assembly was preparing to pass the resolution Thursday, legislative leaders went to see Schwarzenegger because they had heard he was angry about their actions.

He told them he thought they were trying "to jam him," according to a source who was in the meeting. Schwarzenegger felt the resolution was a direct slap at him, and he wanted to kill it before it came to a vote, the source said.

Schwarzenegger, who had sent aides to meet with the protesters May 20, according to an administration official, agreed to reduce the interest rate on the loan, and the resolution never was taken up by the lawmakers.

Ashley Snee, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said that the governor early last month had included a measure in his budget proposal to better aid all schools needing financial assistance.

"This is an example of the governor bringing all sides of an initiative together to find a solution in the best interests of the students, of all the districts in California," Snee said.

From the Contra Costa Times, March 22, 2004

Cruz offers peace, poetry inside, outside classroom

By Ana Facio Contreras

For many students at Downer Elementary School, Cesar Cruz's "office" is a haven.

The conflict manager's workspace is not really an office, but a small windowless room facing the school's playground that is always open to students.

On a recent Monday morning, the colorful room, decorated with posters of civil rights activists Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez was busy with activity and chatter from second- and third-graders who stopped by. Some came in, sat and colored with crayons, while others played a card game of Uno or eyed books on Latino, black and Asian role models on a small bookcase.

Some students passing by stuck their heads into the doorway and asked Cruz: "Are you open?" or "Can I come in?"

"Yes, mija, come in," Cruz said in "Spanglish," to a second-grade girl.

The 30-year-old activist said he feels "blessed" to be working with children.

As a conflict manager at Downer, Cruz deals with 1,200 students, 83 percent of whom are Latino.

Regardless of the children's race -- Latino, African-American, white or Asian -- Cruz says he tries to instill in them a sense of self-worth and a sense of cultural pride.

Cruz is a familiar face off campus as well, attending West Contra Costa school board meetings often to speak out on issues that affect his school.

Recently, he has been ubiquitous at West Contra Costa protests against the district's budget cuts, including a February protest over a delay to reconstruct Downer's aging campus. He also is a main organizer of a 70-mile march to Sacramento that a group of teachers, parents and students will make April 9 to 16 to protest what the group calls continued separate and unequal educational opportunities.

"If we don't fight for social justice, what are we on this earth for?" said Cruz, an activist for 12 years. "I think we're all called to do something, to take a stand. If we don't answer that call, we're doing a disservice to ourselves and in a sense to the great spirit."

Cruz was born in Jalisco, Mexico. When he was 2, his father left the family. In search of a better life for her and her son, Cruz's mother left Jalisco for the United States, leaving Cruz with his grandparents.

At age 11, Cruz was reunited with his mother in Los Angeles. By then, his mother had remarried a man Cruz said was abusive.

By the time he was in high school in Los Angeles, Cruz said he used alcohol and writing to escape teenage angst and trouble at home.

"My escape may have been alcohol, but my refuge was poetry," said Cruz who has been sober for seven years.

As a freshman entering UC Berkeley, Cruz said he didn't have much of a political consciousness.

But his sense of social justice was sparked by the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King.

"I knew in my heart (the outcome of the trial) was wrong," he said.

He joined hundreds of students who protested across the Bay Bridge. Cruz was arrested and jailed. While behind bars, he said he found inspiration in Malcolm X's autobiography. It was at this time Cruz said he became conscious of the injustices in society.

Upon his release months later, he took part in several protests for affirmative action and issues affecting Latino immigrant communities.

"And 12 years later, I'm still trying to learn, I'm still trying to organize," he said. "I'm still learning how to continue to fight for social justice in an empowering way."

Among his role models are Yuri Kochiyama, a civil rights activist and friend of Malcolm X, and Reies Lopez Tijerina who in 1967 in New Mexico, demanded that a local county official enforce the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe and restore property rights to the heirs of those who lived on Mexican territory at the end of the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848.

Though his grant-paid job at Downer is as a conflict manager, Cruz does much more than train students to be "peacemakers" and help them solve their problems peacefully.

He also teaches an after-school poetry class for Downer students and pairs college mentors with his students through a program called "Each one, Reach one."

Cruz, one of two conflict managers working as a consultant for the district, has been in West Contra Costa for five years, first as a Healthy Start coordinator.

Outside school, he keeps parents informed of any school district decisions affecting students.

Last year, Cruz made a CD of sixth-grade students' spoken-word poems.

The cover of the CD, titled "Making Changes" was partly designed by a student who is a former "tagger," or graffiti painter.

Cruz said that after hearing the students recite their poems, he was impressed and moved by their honesty. The poems dealt with everything from life in San Pablo and the Iraq war to child abuse and world peace.

The poems made Cruz realize how much he has in common with them.

Cruz wears a navy terry cloth wrist band on his right wrist from time to time, depending on his mood. The wrist band covers an obvious though faded scar left when his birth father tried to slice off Cruz's hand to silence him as a toddler.

The scar, Cruz said, serves many purposes. It's a reminder to him that he has something in common with his students, some of whom come from families similar to his.

But dwelling on the past is not something he does. Instead, he focuses on the positive, like having the use of his right hand.

"If I had lost my hand, I wouldn't be able to raise it or write," Cruz said.

Jose Rueda, a longtime volunteer at Downer, said that since Cruz began working for the district, he has rallied the Latino community to organize itself politically.

"He has done a lot for the parents and the community," said Rueda, who has grandchildren at Downer. "The problem is that he's so effective in bringing the community together for the first time here, that he's a threat to the powers that be."

Cruz said his social activism is not unique. He said there are many who came before him, such as his role models, including Yuri Kochiyama, who has been one of his personal mentors.

"We're part of a legacy... " Cruz said.

Part of his work with youths outside school is to continue that legacy, he said.

Reach Ana Facio Contreras at 510-262-2798 or acontreras@cctimes.com.

— Jordan Rau and Robert Salladay
Los Angeles Times


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