Santa Ana Alumna Concerned About
By Hugo Martin ’87
Isabel Becerra ’94 turns her black SUV onto a side street in a
working-class Santa Ana neighborhood.
The dark gray stucco duplex behind the Laundromat, next to the taqueria,
hasn’t changed much since she lived there as a child with her parents
and seven brothers and sisters. Graffiti mars an outside wall. The
cramped backyard is framed by a tall, chain-link fence.
As Becerra, 35, pulls into the alley behind the house, memories of her
childhood on Walnut Street flash in her mind. The sounds of a woman
screaming in the alley. The blast of gunshots at night. The sight of
young men selling drugs on the sidewalk.
After graduating from Pomona College with a degree in psychology,
Becerra landed a job as a social worker and case manager in rural
Washington. But she realized she could be helping underprivileged people
in her old Santa Ana neighborhood.
Becerra is back, working as chief operating officer for the Coalition of
Orange County Community Clinics and living in a neighborhood a few
blocks from her old Walnut Street home.
Friends and colleagues say Becerra’s return to her hometown is
indicative of her devotion to her cause.
“We are very lucky to have Isabel,” said Margarita Pereyda, medical
director for the Share Our Selves free clinic in Costa Mesa, one of the
46 clinics served by Becerra’s nonprofit group. “She has a heart and is
committed to serving the community she is from.”
In addition to pursuing grants and donations, the coalition provides
administrative and quality control services for the clinics.
Becerra’s challenge is battling an outdated and flawed perception of
She does not work in the glamorous “O.C.” depicted on the FOX television
series. And she is not part of the wealthy, conservative stronghold that
gave birth to former President Richard Nixon and the border-patrolling
Becerra’s hometown, Santa Ana, is one of the most densely populated
cities in the nation, where 21 percent of children under the age of 18
live below the poverty line.
State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) faces the same hurdles as Becerra
when trying to lobby lawmakers in Sacramento for healthcare funds.
“Colleagues say, ‘You are rich, you are Republicans, you don’t need
it,’” he said. “And then you have a lot of people in Orange County who
believe the role of government is not to serve. So, you are fighting on
Becerra’s family came to Orange County from Mexico when she was four
years old. Her father worked as a farm worker and later at a newspaper
plant. As the oldest of eight children, she adopted the role of family
Growing up in Santa Ana, amid gang violence and poverty, Becerra aspired
to be a beautician until her fifth-grade teacher challenged her to aim
She attended Pomona with a dream of becoming a doctor. Despite good
grades, she didn’t get into medical school so she focused on the
administrative side of health care. She took a job as a healthcare
worker at a clinic in Mount Vernon, Wash., until she came to a
“I was helping poor pregnant women in rural Washington, and I realized I
could be doing the same thing back home,” she said. In the 10 years
since she returned to Orange County, Becerra has worked her way up from
a grant writer to chief operating officer for the coalition. Someday,
she would like to run for public office—perhaps county supervisor—or
head Orange County’s Health Care Agency.
At the moment, Becerra often finds herself torn between her
responsibilities—supporting an alliance of clinics that serves 180,000
people who make half a million visits per year—and wanting to get
personally involved in the lives of her neighbors. In short, she wants
to play the role of protector again.
Last year, she briefly put aside her duties with the coalition to help a
20-year-old family friend who was shot 13 times by gang members outside
a party in Santa Ana. She skipped a meeting with her new boss to find
long-term care and suitable housing for the seriously wounded young man,
as well as a plastic surgeon to reconstruct his shattered eye socket.
“I thought, ‘If I can’t help him, what am I doing here?’” she said.
Back at that stucco duplex behind the Laundromat, lives another first
generation Mexican-American woman who was inspired by Becerra.
Ambrocia Lopez was nine years younger than Becerra when the two grew up
on Walnut Street. She saw Becerra go to college and return to Santa Ana
as a professional.
“I knew that if she could do it, I could,” Lopez said.
Lopez graduated from the University of California, Irvine, earning
bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. She lives in that same
duplex and is now the outreach education manager for one of the local
“If I could help improve someone’s life,” Lopez said, “that makes my