“This has been a work of a lifetime,” Raquel Lopez shares with me about making changes in her life. “It kicked my butt but has taught me the most about career and community.”
For about 15 years, Raquel has been the director of La Caza De La Raza, the East Montecito Street center founded in 1971 to provide a center for empowering Santa Barbara’s Latino community. In recent years, the organization became entangled in financial and real estate turmoil, and its future remains clouded in concern, as has been extensively documented in this newspaper.
But this article is a celebration of Raquel Lopez as an individual, for she’s a wonderful, passionate, and articulate human being. “How do you continue programming while you’re in bankruptcy?” she asks me rhetorically. “How do you keep a smile when people are talking badly about you?”
She continues, “The love and the will of the community keeps us going, despite uncertainty. Our mission is strong: a commitment to social change. It’s amazing to hear what Casa has done for people. We’re all connected. Exploitation is still taking place, Latino children are not achieving at the same rate as non-Latino children. But things are getting better and are improving. My job is easy for me. It’s giving every day. It’s a privilege to work at Caza De La Raza.”
Being Latino myself, Raquel and I start sharing a lot of common experiences. She tells me how much she loves the Spanish word “convivir,” which means to share and live. That verb is a perfect analogy to what her life’s mission has been all about.
She was born and raised in Santa Barbara. Both of her parents were immigrants who arrived in the late 1960s. They met while working at “La Empacadora,” the lemon packing house in Goleta. “That’s where people came and worked,” she explains. “It’s where people created a network.” Her Dad was in charge of shipping, and the place was a big part of her life. “It was such a big deal,” she recalls. “The best lemonade I’ve ever had.”
She grew up in a very strict family. “We had to keep ourselves busy reading — there were a lot of books and creativity,” she says. “Mother encouraged me to read.”
“My consciousness as a chicana developed early on,” she explains. “The ‘conciencia’ about what families endure to support their families — to understand their sacrifices, being underpaid and overworked.” For Raquel, it clicked that something was wrong, prompting what she calls “a young awakening.”
She attended Dos Pueblos High School in 1983, and became the president of MECHA, the Chicanx Student Movement of Aztlán. She often had to translate for her parents, a situation that leads one to feeling much like an adult, handling grown-up situations. It could have altered the dynamic in the relationship, but Raquel never saw it that way. Her parents taught her, “Tu que sabes, ayuda a la gente.” (“Since you know, you must help others.”)
She attended UCSB, studied political science, graduated in 1988, and became an academic advisor at Santa Barbara High for three years. She led a program that encouraged Latino students to apply to college. “You’re neither from here ‘nor de alla,’” she explains about being a first-generation Mexican-American. “We navigate both spaces all the time.”
In the early 1990s, she became the first director of the City of Santa Barbara’s teen program under the Parks and Recreation Department. Later that decade, she worked for Girls Inc. in Carpinteria. “I’ve always been involved in the community,” she points out. “I never had a job for more than four years until La Casa.”
In the year 2000, Raquel worked with Nancy Davis on restorative justice programming for the Community Mediation Program, a job that taught her about reciprocity. “It’s about giving and taking,” she elaborates. “Just because you make a mistake it shouldn’t bind you.” She was the city’s first bilingual restorative justice practitioner.
She proudly remembers her father teaching her about honor, respect, and trust. “Conflict is the most natural thing in people’s lives,” she says. “I can navigate difficult situations and find a way out.”
She was 35 when her son Joaquin was born. “I never thought I’d enjoy being a mother so much,” she tells. “It really shifted how I thought.”
Raquel Lopez answers the Proust Questionnaire.
What is your current state of mind?
Hopeful, excited about the next steps in my future.
What is your greatest fear?
Heights, learning to overcome that fear. I have climbed ruins, walked along bridges.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I respect folks in history who made sacrifices, took risks, made change, made an impact.
What is your motto?
El que persevera alcanza.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being in nature alone and being in nature with my loved ones.
Who do you most admire?
People who overcome incredible obstacles, find success, and then give back to those folks overcoming incredible obstacles. Reciprocity, to give and receive it always amazes me.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Traveling has been a lifelong extravagance. Okay, and shoes and music concerts too.
What is the quality you most like in people?
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Greed, thievery, appropriating the truth.
What do you most value in friends?
Truth and loyalty and the keen ability to acknowledge and laugh at our idiosyncrasies.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Making others feel at ease and heard. I’m a good listener and remember everything folks share.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
No hay amor sin interes. Sweetie/mijo/a. What???
Which talent would you most like to have?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Make more time to spend with people I love and do more of the simple pleasures like reading, cooking, hiking.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Being mother to Joaquin. It’s the most profound and life-affirming achievement.
Where would you most like to live?
A small town in France or Mexico.
What is your most treasured possession?
My mother crocheted a bedspread for each of my sisters, spending years on each one. I love mine, it’s so precious, special, and beautiful. It’s not put away. I see it every day and think of my mom’s love and commitment to her family.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My son, my boyfriend, my sisters.
On what occasion do you lie?
I am horrible at lying. I try not to do it, my son always knows when I am fibbing. We just crack up each time.