About halfway through his keynote address, César Cruz placed a plastic bag over his head and sniffed an open bottle of Elmer’s glue in front of a crowd of 200 people.
Cruz, the keynote speaker at College Nine and Ten’s 11th Annual César Chávez Convocation on May 20, showed the crowd how he dealt with abuse and marginalization as an elementary school student.
“Don’t feel sorry for me, because what I’m telling you, none of it’s new,” Cruz said, right before he removed the plastic bag from the briefcase sitting on the stage. “What I’m telling you, some of you carry it too, in your backpack.”
The César Chávez Convocation focused on gathering speakers who promoted the life and legacy of César Chávez — an activist who initiated the United Farm Workers union and is a role model to many reactionaries all over the world. Cruz, an educator from the Bay Area, was named after Chávez.
“I always said, if you’re going to name your kid after César, he better do something,” said Daniel Alejandrez, Cruz’s mentor and founder of Barrios Unidos, a Santa Cruz program dedicated to keeping youths off the streets and out of prison. “He lives what César told us. Don’t give up — keep going, keep going.”
Not long before Cruz’s emotional display, he told the crowd a personal story about his experiences as a boy who migrated from Mexico at a very early age, accompanied only by his single mother. In the following tumultuous years, Cruz faced abuse from his father, who cut off Cruz’s hand when Cruz was seven. Not long after this, Cruz was left to his own devices as his mother was deported to Mexico. However, Cruz said through his pain, he found his voice.
“Your shyness will not protect you,” Cruz said to an attentive crowd. “Your silence will not protect you. In the darkness I found the light. This convocation is about us finding the light inside.”
Cruz is the founder of Homies Empowerment, an organization similar to Barrios Unidos, but that instead focuses on the community building aspect of youth development. He plans to stop violence through camaraderie, famously saying, “You can’t kill someone you cook a meal with.”
While he does not necessarily want to eradicate gangs themselves, likening them to fraternities and other brotherhoods, Homies Empowerment seeks for the end of gang violence and promotes the importance of education and culture.
Cruz, who is now finishing up his first year as a graduate student at Harvard, has three children, all of whom he is teaching about resilience and education.
“I worry about how my son is being raised because he goes to these classes at Harvard with me, and now he thinks that’s normal,” Cruz said. “Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the new normal.”