Salinas was a place of opportunity for Anthony Rocha. His mother moved their family to Salinas when he was just 5 years old, looking for new opportunities after the death of Rocha’s father.
Sixteen years later, Rocha is simultaneously a Salinas city council member and third-year at UC Santa Cruz, working to fight for equity and provide opportunities for his own community.
“Being with my mom on a regular basis growing up, I was able to see the discrimination that women and people of color face. I didn’t understand why my mother was being treated differently, why people who look like me are being treated differently,” Rocha said. “I just started getting a sense of, ‘This isn’t right,’ and I vocalized those concerns a lot more.”
In high school, Rocha began attending school board meetings, organizing fellow students to push back on certain issues.
After approaching a school board member to talk about an issue, Rocha walked away feeling that she was uninterested in talking to him, mainly because of his age.
“From there, I said, ‘I’m running for school board.’ I didn’t know how I was going to do it or what I was going to do,” Rocha said. “I had no confidence that I was going to win the race. I was running against someone that had been there for almost ten years, outspent me by a lot of money, and had a lot of major support.”
Only 19 years old and a student at Hartnell Community College, winning the election was a long shot. Rocha knocked on doors, raised money, and gained supporters. Much to his own surprise, he won the school board race.
“Everybody was shocked, and there were a few people that didn’t like him winning,” said Chris Barrera, the president of the Local League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). “But, at the end of the day, I think it’s because of his age. He represents the youth, and that’s really not status quo.”
Working with other board members, Rocha helped pass initiatives such as making ethnic studies a graduation requirement, banning the use of toxic pesticides on school grounds, and opening mental health wellness centers with plans to open more in every school in the district.
Though Rocha found ways to work with others on the school board, he faced challenges when the board had to work with the City Council. He felt that council members were not taking into consideration the needs of the school districts.
“I had a council member who would regularly make racially insensitive comments. […] I worked really hard to try and recruit a candidate to represent our area, but I couldn’t get someone to run,” Rocha said. “So from there, I talked to people and all the fingers kind of pointed at me.”
Before his term on the school board ended, Rocha ran for and won a City Council seat in 2020, while also beginning his first year at UCSC as a legal studies major.
Rocha and other council members look to make progress on issues that have been facing the city. One of Rocha’s biggest issues is housing, advocating for increasing inclusionary housing and local marketing to mitigate displacement.
Council Member Carla Viviana González is another newcomer to the council. She received a master’s degree in education from UCSC in 2018.
“I have had the great honor of serving alongside Anthony on our Salinas City Council for only six months, yet in that time he has proven himself to be a sincere ally, a tireless advocate and an honest public servant,” González said. “I am eager to see what we can build together for our residents and excited to champion noble causes alongside him.”
Balancing City Council and a full-time course load takes a lot of time management skills: Rocha attends meetings during the day, then completes schoolwork from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Rocha finds that his schoolwork influences his perspectives on policy. He believes every elected official should be required to take an ethnic studies and sociology class, which he says fundamentally influences perspectives on the equitable distributions of public funds.
“We’re having discussions on gentrification and other community initiatives. I’m able to take the academic knowledge that I’m learning in school and apply it directly to the policies that I’m implementing,” Rocha said. “Oftentimes, when [professors] know that I’m on City Council, they’ll call on me in class to share some of my real world experiences and public policy.”
CHP is publishing this story during the week of July 4 as part of a backlog on unpublished content from spring 2021. The article was originally written on May 30.