A Small City Helped Shape Professor Gilda Ochoa, Now She is Helping Reshape It

Professor Gilda Ochoa sits on a bench in front of the La Puente City Hall.

Joining in with dozens of other La Puente residents, Pomona College Professor Gilda Ochoa crowded into a packed city council meeting last January 2017. They were there to see the vote on a controversial resolution to make La Puente a “sanctuary city” for immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.

The vote was unanimous – 4-0 with one absent councilmember – as the La Puente city council approved a resolution stating that city officials would not enforce federal immigration laws or use city resources to apprehend people “whose only violation is or may be a civil violation of immigration law.”

One year later, Ochoa, a professor of Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies, is at work on new research documenting the sanctuary cities movement and exploring what sustains community organizers and activists, a project she says ultimately will form the basis of her next book.

“This project is deeply tied to community, to home, and to being able to learn, share and write about the stories that were never in the books that I had a chance to read,” says Ochoa, who was born and raised in La Puente and Hacienda Heights before earning her undergraduate degree at UC Irvine. She moved back to La Puente while completing her Ph.D. at UCLA.

The vote on La Puente’s sanctuary city status was a cause for celebration for Ochoa and her neighbors.

Only weeks after the November 2016 presidential election, a small group of community members had gathered in the living room of Manuel Maldonado. A longtime community organizer, Maldonado has advocated on behalf of Spanish-speaking Latino parents for decades, and he was worried about what a Trump presidency would mean for undocumented immigrants living in La Puente.

“I thought ‘What’s going to happen to my community?’ It took my sleep away every night,” Maldonado says. “I called Gilda and a few other community people like Marta Samano and Yvonne Garcia. I can’t do it alone, I need support but need someone who has wisdom, who knows more than I do to help us push the city to become a sanctuary city.”

For Ochoa, working with Maldonado and other residents, young and old, in her own city is what being an engaged community member is all about.

“We activated our different resources to galvanize the community and we started lobbying the city council,” says Ochoa, who was tasked with reaching out to others. She contacted La Puente teachers, students, and others working for sanctuary in neighboring areas like her brother Enrique Ochoa and longtime community organizer Jose Calderon, professor emeritus at Pitzer College. “Within five weeks, we went to the December city council meeting with our resolution, and about 10 to 12 of us spoke on behalf of sanctuary. By the January 10th city council meeting, we filled the chambers.”

Ochoa first met Maldonado in the 1990s when she was completing her Ph.D. and attending community meetings as part of her dissertation on the City of La Puente, which ultimately became the basis for her first book, Becoming Neighbors in a Mexican American Community: Power, Conflict, and Solidarity (2004). At that time, the struggle to maintain bilingual education in the school district was at stake and Maldonado would invite Ochoa to meetings with parents and Hacienda La Puente Unified School District officials.

As he had done over the 20-odd years since they first met, he invited her to another meeting. This time, it was the first of the sanctuary city gatherings.

For Ochoa, the community work that takes place in the living rooms of neighbors, at city hall and school board meetings is not just important. It’s also sustaining.

“I feel it’s the work I need to be doing within communities and in researching and writing,” she says. 

“These are the stories, the experiences, the histories that have too often been erased – erased by other academics—because it’s work not seen as valid, or rigorous—or by other naysayers. Those are ways of erasing our memories, our histories, our experiences.”

As she thinks about the longevity of her work on La Puente – the community where her grandparents moved to from Nicaragua and New York in the 1950s, Ochoa recalls the words her graduate advisor Vilma Ortiz shared with her at moments during her dissertation work when doubts crept in and “naysayers” criticized the focus of her research:

“If you don’t do the work, who’s going to do it?”