September 01, 2000

A Hunger for Justice: The Passion of Rachel Ortiz

By Wilson A. Schooley

"Now we will suffer for the purpose of ending the poverty, the misery, and the injustice, with the hope that our children will not be exploited as we have been. They have imposed hungers on us, and now we hunger for justice."
     César Estrada Chávez (1927-1993)

You feel the kind of heroism that belongs to Rachel Ortiz in the marrow of your bones. Even stronger than the mental impression it leaves is the shiver in your spine and catch in your throat. Hers is the steely, uncompromising courage under adversity that captures hearts and truly changes the world-a day at a time. She began life battling the odds-neglect, drug addiction, crime, and the authority of an intolerant community. Today, she directs an extraordinary and acclaimed $1,000,000 a year program that literally saves the lives of thousands of troubled young people.

Rachel spent her own childhood in a children's home, in foster care, and finally in the juvenile justice system. She was born in 1941 in San Diego, California, then a very parochial, insular town-culturally and racially. It was, in many respects, not an easy place for a young Latina to grow up. But for Rachel, a ward of the court until her eighteenth birthday, it was that much more difficult. She faced drug addiction, resulting incarceration, and everything that came with those experiences for a young woman of her culture at those times in that place.

But Rachel not only survived, and emerged whole and strong-a mark of character and an act of heroism in itself-she came into young womanhood with the incipient instincts of the truest heroes: a passion for justice and an evolving commitment to championing the rights of the powerless. Still in her early twenties, in 1966, she went to San Francisco and volunteered with the United Farm Workers. She became a counselor for an in-school youth program, working with high-risk young people of color who were school dropouts and past or potential offenders.

Through her experience with the United Farm Workers, the heroic spark in Rachel was ignited into flame. Proving once again that heroism is a legacy, a continuum, not a clique, Rachel was profoundly inspired by the remarkable work and person of César Estrada Chávez. Called one of the most heroic figures of our time by Bobby Kennedy, César Chávez not only led the farm workers to self-empowerment and a better life but, ultimately, albeit inadvertently, begot the Chicano movement itself. His deeply held beliefs, nonviolent methods, and personal example and sacrifice changed the landscape of social justice and the lives of his followers, including Rachel Ortiz.

After doing community work with immigrants in the San Francisco area for a number of years, including implementing a work furlough program with San Quentin State Prison, Rachel returned to San Diego as a youth organizer for Neighborhood House, a local community organization, and soon established an association called Operation Grassroots, which brought together youth from the black and Chicano communities of San Diego. Her establishment of communication between the youth groups and police averted violent confrontations and greatly improved the police-community relationship.

In 1970, "Barrio Station" was funded. Within a year, as coordinator and executive director, Rachel built Barrio Station into an organization recognized throughout the community and by local government as a powerful advocate and haven for Chicano youth. She obtained additional funding for Barrio Station of a quarter of a million dollars annually and grew that to a million a year. Her efforts also literally built the 50,000-square-foot Barrio Youth Center, a component of Barrio Station that includes classrooms, studios, a theater, a gymnasium, and Olympic-size swimming pool.

The daily work at Barrio Station includes general prevention activities such as literacy tutorial support, computer instruction, performing arts and other educational assistance, indoor and outdoor sports, and general "intervention" services, including individual and group counseling, guided peer interaction, family programs, and cultural activities. There are also very specific juvenile diversion programs, including case management, counseling, community service projects, advocacy efforts, and specific crisis and gang intervention services that include relocation programs, rival rumor control, suicide and violence prevention programs, as well as advocacy efforts with schools, juvenile court, police, and others. In addition to all of that, Barrio Station also provides scholarships to young people for vocational training and higher education and offers emergency assistance for food, medical care, legal assistance, shelter, and protection.

The extraordinary accomplishments of Barrio Station all come from work others were long unwilling to do, salvaging lives others were afraid to touch. Like César Chávez, Rachel Ortiz stepped in when no one else would, persevered when others faltered and failed, and unfailingly gave of herself every day, over and over, year after year, to help people profoundly in need. She started with almost nothing, and yet managed to build a life in which she gave everything. And she continues to give. More than simply rising to a single moment of heroism, she has made heroic choices almost every waking hour for thirty years.

In 1975, she was elected chairperson of the Mayor's Council on Youth, which she reorganized into a viable working group providing yearly allocations of close to $400,000 to local community programs.

Never satisfied, she fought for the revitalization and redevelopment of all of Barrio Logan-the primarily Hispanic area of San Diego. She believes strongly that deteriorated, neglected neighborhoods undermine and sabotage youth success and development. She initiated community empowerment and development groups and successfully advocated for a new community land use plan and planned district ordinance for Barrio Logan, which was then San Diego's most blighted area. She enlisted the help of her own hero, César Chávez, who met with Rachel's leadership group to plan the fight for a healthy environment for their children. Families filled the seats at public hearings and organized, despite language barriers. The result was a phoenix from the ashes: an end to noxious businesses and junk yards, unpaved and broken streets, and in their place a land use plan, redevelopment designation, and revitalized community.

At the heart of all her many remarkable works on behalf of the community, though, is her devotion to turning around the lives of severely troubled young people. She goes where no one else dares to go, says what others are afraid to say-and often to hear, and connects with lost, angry, scared, and frightened, even dangerous kids in a way and to an extent few other adults even dream possible. Her every day's work bristles with her passion for changing these children's paths from juvenile crime, violence, drug addiction, and incarceration, to paths of glory-lives of love and achievement and giving.

She works with hard-core gang members given up on by society, and connects with them emotionally and intellectually in a way they have rarely experienced in their lives. And she makes this profound connection not by catering to gang sensibilities, but despite confronting these young people with tough talk about rough realities. She has known their troubles firsthand, and can speak with the authority of experience. She comes personally into the life of each young woman and man, responding to their reality and leading them out to experience others. At the same time, she sweeps through them collectively, like a cool wind, bringing energy and hope and new vision.

She has brought these gang youth together with mayors, police chiefs, probation officers, school administrators, and city councils. By bridging these disparate worlds, whose views of each other (if they think of each other at all) are obscured by layers of ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, she changes perceptions on both sides and opens doors to success for the young people. One of her continuing successes is the STAR Youth Advisory Council, through which rival black and Hispanic gang leaders meet with Rachel three times a year to plan support services, recreational activities, job and recovery programs, police interaction, and public policy advocacy.

In addition to the Barrio Youth Center in Barrio Logan, her work has also led to the establishment and expansion of other physical facilities such as the Community Station for black gangs in South East San Diego and two satellite offices in San Ysidro and Sherman Barrios. In 1986, Helen Craw, a generous benefactor, donated eight acres of land to Barrio Station, which Rachel christened "Rancho Viva Helena" in honor of the donor. Today Rancho Viva Helena is a youth ranch enjoyed by hundreds of hard-core city gang members and other high-risk youth.

For her heroics she has been recognized with many awards and honors, including the César Chávez Humanitarian Award, the Noblest Motive Medal, "Rachel Ortiz Day" in San Diego, and the California State Legislature's "Woman of the Year." Other honors include the Outstanding Leadership Award, the Dama de Distincion Award, and the Aztec Award.

But no single or collective recognition can match her thirty years of selfless devotion to social justice and breaking cycles of group persecution and individual suffering. The best and most profound reward for her work, of course, is the young lives she has changed, and the deep affection and respect of the young people she has helped, who do not give either affection or respect easily. Still, more recognition-beyond the borders of her work and given more frequently-is not merely her due as a remarkable hero, it is necessary as an example for us all.

Just as César Chávez inspired her, she inspires us. He would have been very proud of Rachel today, and might have been speaking of her when he said: "Those who are willing to sacrifice and be of service have very little difficulty with people. They know what they are all about. People can't help but want to be near them. They help them; they work with them. That's what love is all about. It starts with your heart and radiates out." The range and richness of the daily miracles that have radiated out from Rachel's heart are remarkable, for any lifetime and particularly for hers. Her hunger for justice has been the meal of salvation for thousands of young men and women, and an entire community. In gratitude and recognition, we say: "¡Viva Rachel!

Wilson A. Schooley was formerly a partner and business trial lawyer in a large law firm. Today, he represents indigent criminal defendants on appeal, and is a law professor, actor, and writer.

Editor's Note: Quotes used with permission of the César E. Chávez Foundation.

As published in Human Rights, Fall 2000, Vol. 27, No. 4, p.5-7.