When I think of Rita, the image that comes most often to me is that of her smile, the radiance of which was one of her gifts to so many of us. As many of you know, she was more than just a smile. Rita was a fighter, and she became an ardent advocate for the Mexican-American community. City Councilmembers knew Rita for her pithy remarks, spoken with a passion and directness that was hard to ignore.
Rita was a committed parent of two and grandparent of six, all of whom received unlimited love and support. Her two children, Jeff and Lisa, became dedicated family practice physicians and have spent their careers serving poor, often Spanish-speaking patients. She was always proud of her children and grandchildren, and more than willing to brag about them.
Rita was born to Mexican immigrants in Antioch, California, in 1931, and was the youngest of six children. Her family moved to the Bay Area at the end of World War II. As the baby in the family, she had the advantage of being spoiled by her siblings, and was the most assimilated. Although she initially did not take school seriously, she was a voracious reader.
We were married in 1952, and our life together as activists began in the 1960s in Berkeley. Rita was enrolled at UC Berkeley when her first child was born, and she was involved with Planned Parenthood, the Mexican American Political Association, and the civil rights movement of the time.
When we moved our family to the San Joaquin Valley in the late ’60s, Rita experienced the real meaning of racial segregation-the sort that was experienced by rural Mexican farm workers. No longer a hippie Berkeleyite, she transformed herself into a fierce Chicana activist. She organized a group of troubled teens that called themselves “The Pacesetters.”
In 1967 we moved to Mexico. Our teenage children got to feel what it is to be Mexican and absorbed it with relish. Our next move was to Washington, D.C., where Mexicans were virtually unknown. The kids joined the Afro-American club, and Rita joined the D.C. Black Power Movement.
Rita felt out of place in D.C., so in 1970 we moved to Santa Barbara for its beauty and large Latino population. Rita obtained a master’s degree in counseling psychology from UCSB, and our children eventually went to college at UC Santa Cruz, where Rita was hired a few years later as a counseling psychologist.
A short time later UCSB awarded her a Ford Fellowship, which allowed her to begin a PhD program there. With her children gone, she became active in yoga, meditation, bilingual tutoring, and teaching a class on sex and aging. Eventually devoting herself as an organizer for the United Farm Workers union, Rita discontinued her PhD work.
Rita served as a co-executive director of La Casa de La Raza; as president of Latinos for Better Government; and on the boards of the Unitarian Universalists, Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Human Relations Committee. Rita was also a regular presence at the Women in Black Vigil-an anti-war group. She spent a good part of her adult life writing about the trials of being part of a successful immigrant family. A small book of her memories is in the process of being published by the Dream Foundation.
In the last two or three months, Rita was under the compassionate care of our dear friend Alicia Muro and the staff at Sarah House in Santa Barbara. Before she died, Rita asked me to thank Alicia and the kind staff for the generous love that surrounded her in her final days.
I wish to remember Rita for her passion, verve, warmth, and creativity, and the long-term love she shared so willingly, humanly, and thoroughly through the passionate times we lived through.
Descanza en Paz, Rita.