Sitting in the back of the Casa Maria soup kitchen in South Tucson, Cesar Aguirre discusses his work for the Catholic social justice organization and how he became a fighter for his daughters, their education and Tucson Unified School District schools.
Thinking back on the July cafecito he hosted at the John Valenzuela Youth Center, Aguirre reminds me that it wasn't the first time South Tucson residents had filled the center's large community room. But this time it was to give residents an opportunity to meet TUSD's new superintendent and to let him know they cared about their children's education.
"There was a lot of intention behind it," he says. "Here we were, getting a new superintendent and thinking about our struggles with the previous superintendent. We kind of wanted to open a door for a change in the culture of TUSD and be the first to reach out to him."
Most of the meeting was conducted in Spanish and new Superintendent H.T. Sanchez answered most of the questions in Spanish, too. Speaking in Spanish was also intentional, Aguirre says.
"One of the reasons we wanted to do it in Spanish was because I kept thinking about all the times I'd taken parents to TUSD board meetings and there was no translation, and parents walked out more confused than ever. We decided to flip that culture around and asked English-speakers if they needed headsets. For them, it was an eye-opening experience," Aguirre says.
Another goal for Aguirre was showing a united front to the new superintendent. However, to think that the room was filled only with parents and teachers representing South Tucson-area schools such as Ochoa, Mission and Pueblo would be wrong. Aguirre says more than 24 district schools were represented at that meeting.
Those alliances, which Aguirre says he remains committed to building, started late last year when the TUSD governing board held hearings on potential school closures. Aguirre had been working to keep open Ochoa, which his daughters attend. It was the second time the district had targeted Ochoa for closure.
Ochoa was taken off the closure list early in the hearings process. But rather than go home, thinking his work was done, Aguirre continued to show up at every hearing along with a large group of South Tucson parents and teachers to advocate for all of the area schools.
"Sure, when we started, it was about saving our schools and the education of our children in our barrio," he says. But during the hearings, "We heard many parents saying 'Don't close our school, shut down theirs.' There was a lot of negative energy between the different schools. I started realizing we were all facing the same problem. We were all fighting the same powers to keep our schools open and I couldn't understand why we were fighting each other to do that."
The focus on education is a no-brainer for Aguirre. The single father of two daughters in elementary school grew up on Tucson's southside. His parents were from Mexico. When he was 10, his parents, believing they were doing right by their children, moved the family out of the southside to rural Three Points. Aguirre says the transition was difficult for him. He was bullied in his new neighborhood and had a hard time making friends.
He eventually became involved in drugs and gangs. What helped him change, Aguirre says, was the birth and development of his oldest daughter. He had to do some time in the Pima County Jail, and when he got out his daughter barely recognized him.
"I got clean and started surrounding myself with different people," he says.
However, the mother of his daughters didn't want to get clean. She was still doing drugs when his second daughter was born. Aguirre, who had been sober for six months by then, spent this next three years fighting for custody of his children.
"It's hard, but I do my best," he says of being a single dad. "It's helped me change a lot of my ways of thinking."
Today, Aguirre and his daughters live at Casa Maria, where Aguirre now works. Besides working on education and immigration issues, he helps at the soup kitchen and with the Bus Riders Union, a community group dedicated to improving Tucson's transit system. "I've seen friends and family torn apart in this community through deportations. But I'd say now my idea of justice is broader and has helped me get involved in many issues facing our community. Now I'm doing what I love."
However, education issues and helping the parents of students realize that they have some control over how their children learn remain his passions.
"Public education is under attack and parents are the only group that can really make sure their children's education is protected," he says. "They have the power."