Power in Union

Jose Fregoso, 19, is impressed by the leaders of MILPA. “They think differently than other individuals,” he says.

When Juan Gomez talks about his hopes for East Salinas, he goes deep. He cites academic works like “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and uses phrases like “decolonize your mind.” He rails about how poor kids funnel from schools to prisons, and advocates for how community building can stem that tide.

This is the regular parlance of a fledgling Salinas group called MILPA (Motivating Individuals for Leadership in Public Advancement), a cadre of organizers and youth aiming to build a social justice movement in East Salinas. The group – they call themselves “a people’s collectivo” – is working in partnership with nonprofit Building Healthy Communities, and has started to establish itself in the fabric of Alisal activism.

MILPA comprises teens, some from troubled backgrounds; adult mentors, some who’ve been incarcerated; and social justice activists, among others. Their weekly meetings draw about 30 people.

When 19-year-old Jose Fregoso left juvenile hall last summer, he didn’t have many places to turn. “I’m not really in touch with my family,” he says. “I got out and I was on my own.”

Through a mutual friend he met Raul Tapia, a MILPA leader and recruiter for Hartnell Community College’s Academy for College Excellence program. ACE helps underprepared students transition into college life. Fregoso started taking classes and attending MILPA meetings.

“I went to the first meeting,” Fregoso says, “and I felt like a lot of individuals could relate to my story.”

MILPA’s name is derived from an Uto-Aztecan word that means “field.” It’s a symbol for everything the activist organization aims to be. Imagine growing a set of crops: corn, beans and squash, explains Tapia.

“You have to grow one with the other,” he says. “Corn can’t grow by itself. It needs the agents the bean provides and the squash to protect it and grow stronger. We’re trying to create strength, to communicate and learn from each other.”

Those ideals, interspersed with talk of love, justice and character development, are borrowed partly from La Cultura Cura, a program that instills cultural values in young Latinos. Participants share their stories, judgment free, with peers.

“A lot of us never are even taught to share an ‘I love you’ with our own folks,” Tapia says. “They weren’t taught to love, they were taught to work.”

But MILPA, which sprang from the La Cultura Cura discussion-based model, also strives to foster activism. The group has been involved in the fiercely debated new juvenile hall proposed for Salinas.

“What would be completely ideal is less youth incarcerated and more education promoted,” says Tapia, who’s spent time behind bars himself.

For now the group is completely volunteer run. Leaders say they’ve started reaching out to the community, holding an info session this month with the Latino Network of Monterey County and planning meetings with California State University Monterey Bay and the University of California Santa Cruz in the near future.

“MILPA, at the end of the day, means family,” says Gomez. “It means amor.”

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