Cesar Chavez and Chole Alatorre

Ed. Note: On March 25, Pacoima resident Chole Alatorre, born in 1927, passed away at age 97 after a long illness. She was a committed and respected voice in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, widely known as a pioneering activist on the forefront of issues that broke ground in the fight  for dignity and justice in Chicano communities. Well before her time — before women were accepted — she worked with  Maritime Union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Teamsters, United Auto Workers and more.  Alatorre was both a labor and civil rights activist, known for her work as the founder of Casa Hermandad with Bert Corona, and Centro de Acción Social Autónomo (CASA), fighting for the rights of immigrants. She was often sought after for her counsel, political endorsement and knowledge as one of the best labor and community organizers whether male or female.

When my children were very young and attending local schools, I became more aware of the educational and community inequities that were all around us. It was in the early 1990’s when I found a new calling: organizing parents at the school my children were attending. I learned that change wasn’t easy and found the more organizing that we did, more and more needed to be done to advocate for our families.

It was about that same time that I started venturing into the mostly male-dominated [Chicano] political groups and committees. I felt uneasy participating and voicing my ideas and opinions. It was intimidating, but that feeling was destined not to last for long. 

One day I made my way into a Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) meeting held here in the Valley. That was the day I met Chole for the first time. 

Meeting her was a life changing experience in my role as an activist. I saw that Chole had a razor-focused style of  participation in meetings that opened a whole world of learning for me. Her demeanor was always calm, and exerted discipline.  

She carried herself with a straight back, and walked into a room with grace. She didn’t scream or yell or ever lose her composure. Regardless of how challenging a situation could be, she never raised her voice.  She didn’t have to, and it wasn’t in her nature.

She had long earned great respect from the community and from fellow activists as a leader. She knew how to respond to the most macho of men and how to take a calm but unbending stand. It was an experience to watch.

She never required a big public stage or public awards, or accolades. Her vast work spoke for itself.    

I wanted to be like her, and before too long we  became friends. Not only hermanas en la lucha (sisters in the fight), but true friends. The kind of friends that learn from each other, talk about fun times, share exciting, blood-rushing-to-your-head protesting moments. We spent many hours on the phone and visited each other’s homes.  

For those who wanted to see her, they were told to get to her  house on Amboy Avenue near Pacoima Middle School by seeing“dos arboles de pino” (two pine trees) and a big iron gate where she would always greet us.  She lived in that house for more than 50 years, in the middle of the Pacoima barrio.

One of my favorite stories that Chole shared with me is when she met Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera. I think of her as she always dressed immaculately, wearing some amazing aretes (earrings). I can picture that meeting with her sitting around the table, talking, exchanging ideas with our most noted intellectuals and artists and having bad ass proletarian conversations.

Chole was highly educated, knowledgeable and spoke perfect Spanish. She could speak English, but was most comfortable speaking Spanish.  Always meticulous with her appearance, she liked having her hair and nails done. 

Many gifts were exchanged between us: Among them, un rebozo color lilafrom La Cuna del Rebozo: Santa Maria del Rio, San Luis Potosi Mexico, her hometown. 

We had plans to continue enjoying each other’s company, including going with her to see her San Luis Potosi. She was so proud of her roots. She also wanted us to meet her family members; her nephews and nieces, many of whom were doctors. She was eager for us to know her town plazas, churches, museums,and to see the cantera rosa facades on the buildings, which were mostly built by indigenous people. 

I miss my friend terribly. She was always willing to talk to students to offer advice and teach them how to organize. 

The students admired her. She inspired them. Her organizing methods were very simple and to the point. 

Whenever she would talk to students, she would start by asking, “Quantos de Uds entienden Espanol?” If she had a big number of Spanish speakers her face would light up. If not, she simply continued her message, “Bueno, primero preparense para el futuro.”  (“Well, first prepare yourself for the future.”). She would tell them, “You are just starting — we are going.” She would let them know that while those that have come before them have fought for their rights, they have to start thinking about the lives of their friends, compañeros, brothers and family, and that work begins by thinking about how to organize.

She always encouraged me to meet with other activists that included Rosalio Urias Munoz, Nativo Lopez, and of course Bert Corona. She knew I had an interest in learning from the best, and one day she gifted my family with a cherished photo of her that was taken during a meeting with Rudy Acuna, Bert Corona and Cesar Chavez.

As her illness progressed and she could no longer easily chew her food, I rushed to the grocery store and emptied the shelves  of baby like foods that she could take through a straw. ”para que tanto Norma”? she asked. “You need to eat like a baby” I said. “ don’t you know that “que acabas de nacer otra vez”? (that you were just born again?)  We had a good laugh together. 

Yes, I believe Chole’s legacy of justice, human rights and organizing will continue in those of us that learned from her. The thousands or workers and familias that she helped will keep her spirit alive. 

Descansa en paz querida amiga. I am honored to have known you not only as acamarada (comrade) but as a sister and a friend.