Sergio Sanchez, who learned social justice from his parents, will be honored by ACLU.
Thursday, October 18, 2001
When you''re looking to get something done, say the friends and co-workers of activist Sergio Sanchez, he''s the "go to" guy.
The six-year resident of Monterey County, who has his hands in nearly every local minority-rights group, will be awarded the annual Ralph B. Atkinson award from the Monterey County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union this Sunday.
Sanchez began his community-service career early on, inspired by his parents.
"My dad was involved with unions in Mexico, which was a little controversial because they''re run by the government," Sanchez says. "My mom was a registered nurse and she was always caring for people at work and in our house."
Growing up in Jalisco, Mexico, from the age of 9, Sanchez learned to care for the community around him. Despite a good life in Mexico, his mother decided she wanted to go to America to work.
"My family was surprised. There was sort of a bad reputation of America back then. I mean, they usually treat you bad there, we thought. But she went to work in the fields and when she said, ''I want my kids,'' we joined her later.
"I didn''t want to go. But they told me we were going to Disneyland, so I thought that was OK. The next day after we arrived, I went to work with a shovel in the cotton fields and I passed out. I was a city boy."
That was August 1979. Sanchez worked near Fresno until 1985 and came to Salinas in 1996.
Sanchez''s own family is carrying on the activist tradition. His wife works for the UFW. His kids are familiar with things such as grape boycotts. "That''s why I say it''s not work to me, it''s a family activity. Some people go camping. We go picketing," he quips.
When the ACLU told him he would be given the annual award, he thought they were joking. "I said, ''Riiight.'' I''ve never won an award. I tried to talk them out of it. There are people who''ve been doing this for a long time. I think I need to work for another 20 years to get that. I feel very honored."
Right now, Sanchez acts as the political and organizational director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 817, as the district director of the United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and as the president of the board of directors of Barrios Unidos.
Antonio Avalos, the director of Barrios Unidos, which provides alternatives to youth violence, is grateful to have Sanchez on his team. "If Sergio backs me up, I know it happens," Avalos says. "He''s a good guy."
A week ago, Sanchez was one of the last people at the Cervantino Festival in Salinas (honoring Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes), according to Avalos, rounding up chairs and filling trashcans. A few days later, he was helping in a soup line at Natividad Hospital.
"He''s a chameleon, and I mean that in a good way," says Avalos. "He can wear a tie or a T-shirt. He talks to people and makes them feel comfortable. He just loves to be out there."
What prompted Sanchez to champion the rights of minorities?
"I just watched my parents," he explains. "They were always looking out for others and I want to do that. It feels good to help."
Although Sanchez works with the SEIU, his multitude of interests have ranged into other fields, so to speak. Collaborations with the Monterey chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU, the Coalition of Minority Organizations, the Salinas Redistricting Committee, and the Charles Vaughn Sr. Mental Health and Police Practices Task Force all comprise Sanchez''s many hats.
SEIU Executive Director John Vellardita praises Sanchez as "serving people unconditionally. He is cut from the cloth of social justice."
Avalos cautions people who first meet Sanchez about his intimidating personality but praises his generosity also. "I''ve known Sergio a few years. At first I thought he was...what''s the word? Arrogant? He''s bossy--but that gets things done. He loves to work, he''d be bored without it."
"His favorite question is ''what do you need?''" Avalos laughs.
Even with all the activities he''s taken on, Sanchez laments the problems that continue in the county. "People aren''t where they should be," he says. "People of color, women, they aren''t getting paid what they should, they don''t have access to education.
"There are farmworkers living in cardboard boxes in South County. How can the richest county let people live so badly?"
The Ralph B. Atkinson award presentation is part of the Monterey ACLU''s 25th annual Celebration of Civil Liberties, to honor "dedication to the cause of individual rights and social justice." Last year, the award was given to Joyce Vandevere. This year''s luncheon is held Sunday at 1pm in the Monterey Beach Hotel. Call 424-6447 for reservations.