Last week, the middle school marked the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month by inviting East Palo Alto City Councilmember Antonio López to speak at a special morning assembly. A passionate and energetic speaker, López talked about his upbringing in the mostly Latinx city of East Palo Alto. “It’s a community mostly of immigrants, a community where English may not be the first language,” he said.
He also described it as a “city that nobody cared about,” recalling a story about a music class with 30 students but only six recorders, each of which had to be sanitized after every use. Quality groceries were also out of reach for many people, including López’s family. As a child, he walked 45 minutes each way with his mother to the grocery store.
A major believer in the importance of quality education, López thought of school as his “sanctuary” growing up. “For a lot of us growing up in East Palo Alto … education was a thing that changed my life and I’m sure your parents’ lives,” he said.
The son of Mexican immigrants, López talked about his familiarity with the pressures of having parents with high expectations due to the risks they took moving to another country. While attending Duke University, he informed his parents that he wanted to be a poet, which did not get a positive reaction. He nevertheless pursued and earned a Marshall Scholarship to attend the University of Cambridge and went on to win the 2019 Levis Prize from Four Way Books.
Upon returning home near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, López saw that East Palo Alto was still experiencing many of the same problems he had seen growing up, and decided to take action. With the help of his young cousin Adolfo, he organized a campaign for councilmember and began knocking on doors. “He didn’t have a passion for civic engagement, but he was open to learning about it,” López said of Adolfo, who set out learning about local issues, budgets and infrastructure. His platform of equal opportunities for youth won him the councilmember seat in December 2020.
“I want you all to have interests. I want you all to have passions. I want you all to guard those passions,” he said. “And I want you to be open to all the different ways that you can be inspired, that you can be pushed, that you can be encouraged.”