At 14 and 41: My Teacher Is Still My Hero

by Alma Marquez

Mr. Ric Loya, a health teacher at Huntington Park High, was never my “official” teacher but he remains one of the most influential teachers in my life. The lessons he taught me outside of the classroom at 14 gave me the courage to fight for what what is right, despite the odds or opposition. His belief in me changed my life and inspired me to fight for educational justice and school choice for working class people in Los Angeles.

He was recently profiled by the LA Times for his courage against local government corruption.

My Teacher Taught Us About Action & Our Community

At 14, Mr. Loya first told us about the proposed toxic waste incinerator to be built across from our school and exposed me to politics. I remember it well. He invited students to join him during lunch in our sanctuary, his classroom. He told us what was happening. Political deals were cut. If things moved as planned, they would have the permits needed to build a toxic waste incinerator.

We were shocked. And soon, our teenage vocabulary went from dropping f-bombs to figuring out how we could stop them, and protect our community.  Our anger became action.

I didn’t know it then but we developed a campaign. We talked with friends and neighbors about the injustice. This incinerator would never be considered in Beverly Hills; the power-brokers believed our low-income, Latino community didn’t matter. We organized political actions- including shutting down streets with human chains- and inviting thousands of our closest friends to “public hearings.”

Mr. Loya included all of us. He tapped our talent and encouraged us to use it. The artists, yes- the graffiti artists, recycled boxes to make posters that spoke for us. We took it to the streets, organized thousands of people and we stopped that incinerator from being built.

Had it not been for Mr. Loya educating students about what was happening, the toxic waste incinerator in Southeast Los Angeles would be killing thousands of people slowly, for generations. Instead, there is now a fitness gym on the same corner which would have housed that incinerator. I call it  Poetic Justice. 

Years of Reflection: I Trusted My Teacher

Looking back, I didn’t know what to call what we were doing- and I surely didn’t expect that people would write books about it. I just knew that my teacher, who I trusted and whose integrity I never questioned, educated me and a few of my schoolmates which we needed to  ignite our community’s collective action.

Experiencing that community win at 14 altered my entire life. It made me fearless and it also helped me develop a strong BS-meter.

The skills I learned- political strategy, community organizing, parent and student organizing, communications, and building trust-based relationships- are the cornerstone of my career.

It is what I do now as an entrepreneur.

After high school, I took his advice and wisdom to heart. He inspired me to go to college and I earned my Master’s degree in Urban Planning from UCLA, one of the best universities in the world. I wanted to learn the language of decision making, how cities are developed and different strategies used to build strong communities. I wanted to have people who came from my community at the table too.

The Future Is Now: Educational Justice is Education Reform

My life experiences as a teen with environmental justice are very similar to my commitment to improving public schools in our community now through Education Reform.

As a college student, I learned more about the conditions in Los Angeles.  Even though we had a crisis in education, no one outside of the education community was talking about it.

In some parts of Los Angeles, we had a 20% graduation rate (now it is about 50%). We had incredibly large schools, like mine, where kids were dropping like flies. The small, college-prep schools were only magnet schools- and those schools have their own confusing “point” admission system that most parents didn’t understand.

I was introduced to charter schools in 2002. I saw first hand how students in those schools were treated and engaged. The schools felt like college-prep schools in rich communities. It inspired me to fight for dramatic systemic change in our local schools, for all students.

The small schools- magnet and charters- proved that it was possible to have great, college-prep schools serving low-income children in Los Angeles.

Using the skills Mr. Loya taught me, I fought for school choice and school opportunity. I organized parents at Green Dot Public Schools, created the Los Angele Parents Union, helped build the Small Schools Alliance and together we built political will to create small, high quality schools in Los Angeles- charters and small schools through public school choice policies.

It is not easy work. There is real opposition to this kind of change.

I continue to fight so families have school choice. I continue to educate parents and politicos about the importance of school choice and making sure that low-income parents have access to great schools in their neighborhoods. Sometimes, the politics of it all frustrate me, depress me. But then, I tap into the anger. The anger of the injustice. The anger of the inequality.

And I check myself.

Anger is not the winning ticket.

Love is.

I tap into the love for my community and for children. The love for their future. I tap into the love that Mr. Loya, a UTLA teacher, taught me how to find.

My Teacher, My Hero

After all these years, my teacher Mr. Loya is still my hero. I know by the way he affectionately calls me Kid, he is proud of me and the woman I have become, the contributions I have made.

I am committed to always be a small reflection of who he is- a community giant.

Today, on Teacher Appreciation Day, I honor him and his beautiful wife Linda, an extraordinary educator who changed thousands of lives in her career as college counselor at HPHS. They both taught me what it is to be a selfless community servant.

Thank you is such an understatement. Instead of just saying thank you on #teacherappreciationday, I will continue to honor you, Ric and Linda, every day by fighting for what is right and fighting for students, like you fought for me.

Alma Marquez is a Los Angeles parent and writer with an extensive background in community organizing. This post was republished from La Comadre.