Sen. Lara Talks About Strength in Diversity

“Immigrants like my parents not only created a better generation, they created a better state of California.”

California Sen. Ricardo Lara speaks at UC Riverside March 4. Peter Phun

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — When state Sen. Ricardo Lara was growing up in East Los Angeles, his immigrant parents didn’t fuss when he complained about going to school.

Instead, his parents got him and his four siblings up at 4:30 one morning, and drove them to a large lettuce field in Fresno, Lara told a large group at UC Riverside on Friday, March 4, during the School of Public Policy’s discussion on diversity and leadership in public service.

“You don’t want to go to school?” his father told them, waving at the field. “OK, this is your new job,” Within 10 minutes, Lara said, he knew that squatting to pick row crops was not what he wanted for his future.

Later, Lara said, his mother told him, “‘Look son, I didn’t sacrifice my entire life to come here and have mediocre children…. I came because I wanted you to wear a suit to work and not a uniform, like your father and I do.”

Lara said he didn’t know what mediocre meant then, “but when I did, I understood that immigrants like my parents not only created a better generation, they created a better state of California.”

Sen. Ricardo Lara speaks at UC Riverside on March 4. Peter Phun

Sen. Ricardo Lara speaks at UC Riverside on March 4.
Peter Phun

Immigrants from all over the world have enriched this country and made it stronger, he said, by being rebels who wanted more than mediocrity.

“That’s the true beauty of the American dream, and why this is such as amazing country,” Lara said. “Somebody in your lineage decided enough was enough, and we’re going to do what we have to do to survive. There’s something in your DNA that says, ‘We’re fighters and we’re not going to settle for the status quo.’”

Today, Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the first openly gay person of color to be elected to the California Senate, chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, but he is also a champion of diversity and immigrant rights. And that doesn’t mean just Latino immigrants, he said. More than 50 percent of the people in his district are foreign born, including the largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia.

“A lot of people prefer to divide us, and we tend to fall into a trap of us versus them, but when I say, ‘This was my experience, my reality,’ it in no way diminishes your experience,” Lara said. “When I think of diversity, I think of everyone.”

Lara said he developed that sense of self and his heritage by going to San Diego State University, the first in his family to go to college. That was when he began to understand the sacrifices his parents made, and how sheltered he was as a child.

“I thought everybody was Mexican American,” he said. “When I found out my friend was from Guatemala, I thought, ‘Wow, we’re really diverse.’”


Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor and associate dean, talks with Sen. Ricardo Lara at a talk on March 4. Peter Phun

His parents worked multiple jobs, and were rarely home until late, he said, but every morning they left breakfast, lunch and dinner for their five children, freshly ironed clothes to wear to school, and strict instructions that if they didn’t return by 9 p.m., there was a certain house where they should go. “They said, ‘Don’t ask any questions, just go to that house,’ and it wasn’t until later that I realized, this was our exit plan, our strategy if our parents got picked up by immigration during the day.”

Understanding those realities, and getting a historical perspective in college helped politicize him, and make him understand the importance of getting involved, Lara said. His parents are citizens now, thanks to President Reagan’s Amnesty Act, “and they never miss an election. They’re precinct captains and go around talking to folks about getting out to vote.”

Lara urged the students at the meeting to stay involved in the public process — “If you don’t get involved in politics, politics gets involved with you,” he warned.

After the talk, students seemed energized by Lara’s comments. “It is easy to get caught in the ‘us versus them’ trap,” said freshman Daniel Castaneda, a freshman pursuing a double major in history and public policy. “We have to be sure that no group is feeling marginalized.”

Political science student Semi Cole, a member of CalPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, said he most appreciated Lara’s advice about getting people involved.

“So often we’re told students need to get involved, but no one tells us how to get them involved,” Cole said. “His answer is simple — ‘Stay connected and get educated on the issues.’ I find him very inspiring. My dream is to one day be at that podium, making a change.”

The goal of the series of forums is to improve civic engagement and build a new generation of leaders in Inland Southern California.

Dean Anil Deolalikar from the UCR School of Public Policy and UC Student Regent-Designate Marcela Ramírez provided welcoming remarks, and Associate Dean Karthick Ramakrishnan moderated an audience Q&A with Senator Lara.

A number of campus and civic organizations co-hosted the event, including: The New American Leaders Project, The Group (African-American community advocacy group in Riverside), NAACP – Riverside Branch, Riverside Latino Network, and UCR African Student Programs, Asian Pacific Student Programs, Chicano Student Programs, Graduate Student Association, LGBT Resource Center, Middle Eastern Student Center, Native American Student Programs, Undocumented Student Programs, Associated Students of UCR, and UCR Office of Government and Community Relations.

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