Civil engineer turned activist hopes Measure M could help prevent homelessness Sitting down with Ernestina Saldaña

Ernestina Saldana at the LGBTQ + Womxn’s Rally on January 20 | Gabriel Jesse Medina

By Andrea Patton

In a city with a rich history of activism, Santa Cruz resident Ernestina Saldaña is on the front lines advocating for change, most recently for the passing of Measure M at the polls this November. The measure is a citizen initiative designed to amend the city charter and is divided into three categories: rent control, just-cause eviction, and a rent board comprised of a panel of five elected representatives who will oversee issues related to landlords and tenants. Last January, Saldaña was awarded the Bell of Freedom Award from the Santa Cruz ACLU.

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How would I describe you to people who don’t know you?

I am a long-time resident of Santa Cruz County. I have been living here in and out for the last 30 years in almost every city. I have lived in Ben Lomond, Santa Cruz, Soquel, Live Oak and Watsonville. I have worked in education and social nonprofit fields, so that has given me the opportunity to meet different kinds of populations.

I always think that each one of us has a responsibility to leave a better world than we found. My grandma’s philosophy was that if we go to a place and there is trash on the floor, then we pick it up. That way the place would be clean for the person who was coming after. I think each one of us has the potential to leave behind a better world, so I’m doing my part.

Why are you a proponent of Measure M?

I have been homeless twice in the 30 years I have lived in the area. Both times I was working. The first time I was renting a room, and the lady who was very religious disliked the fact that I was not as religious as she was, and she just kicked me out of the room I was renting in her house for my son and myself. One day when I came back from work, she had all my belongings in boxes already, so I had to leave.

There was no time to find a place between 5 p.m. and 8 o’clock, so that night we slept in my car and the next morning I showed up to work and said, “I haven’t been able to take a shower. I have my son with me. We haven’t eaten.”

We did a little bit of surfing sofas for a while but decided with my wheelchair it was inconvenient for myself and the person who was allowing us to stay there. For two nights my son and I stayed in the Freedom Camp, which was by where the Tannery is now. After that I went to the Salvation Army Shelter in Marina.

The second time was after my husband decided to move the family to Arizona to find a place we could afford because land was very cheap there, but also salaries were very cheap there too. So it didn’t work out and we had to come back and we didn’t plan on coming back, and we ended up living on the street.

At that time I was able to find a place for my family and myself at the Pajaro Valley Shelter Services in Watsonville. Because of that, I ended up working for Pajaro Valley Shelter Services as a program director for the emergency shelter. And I had the opportunity to see bigger rates of people, women and children living on the streets because of divorce, because of illness, because of disability, because their workplace closed, all of the different ways.

I believe it is important to pass Measure M because it will allow me, if I find a place, to stay there and not get kicked out because I disagree with the landlord or because I am getting older and they want somebody younger, or because I have too much of an accent, and all the other reasons I have been given at some point or the other to be kicked out of a place.

What do you think are the larger systems in effect that are contributing to these housing problems?

You know, I’m not a sociologist so I don’t have the fancy words to let you know what is going on here, but we’re talking about housing, the fact that housing is a good thing.

When somebody is providing housing, they know that somebody else, a person, is going to be living in the place and then they see the humanity, but when we have property owners who don’t live in the area, who never visit the place you are living, don’t get to know the family, or the garden they are growing or the difficulty with which they are growing their families, they can completely dehumanize. The person who is paying the rent is just that. He is my rent. He is not an individual with a family with needs, he is just my rent.

Unfortunately we have more and more of those kind of developments in the city and I think that’s part of the reason why this is happening.

It is more evident when you are a person of color, because it is very well documented that for every dollar that a white person is receiving, a person of color is getting just 45 cents. So we will never be able to rent a house in Seabright or Aptos. We can afford the Beach Flats, we can afford some of the Live Oak area or Watsonville.

It’s not that we are trying to live with more Mexicans or with more Salvadorans or with more people of color, it’s just that is all we can afford, so before you know, you have these areas where only people of color live while the rest of the city is gentrified because the people who used to live there or who are working there can no longer afford it.

What are some of the other community issues you’ve been involved with in Santa Cruz?

In my life there have been many issues because once again I have the strong belief that we can all make a difference. Even if it’s a small grain of sand that you put into the balance, that eventually will add up with the others.

The first time I really started being involved in Santa Cruz was when my children were in school. It was at the school level, organizing the children, the classmates who were Latino and didn’t have the opportunity that we were able to provide to our children. I am a civil engineer. I was a civil engineer in Mexico before my accident, so I am very good in math. My ex-husband was a white guy, whose major was English, so he was very good in English. We were able to provide that to our children and they were very strong in both subjects, so I decided that was a way to start sharing with other children who did not have that opportunity in their houses.

When my kids grew up and took their own paths, and left me alone, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and that was when I decided to start volunteering with the schools. I was in the foster grandparents program, and that’s when the bus route cuts were coming. The first cut was ParaCruz, which helped people with disabilities, and I jumped in and tried to preserve ParaCruz because they were the ones taking me to the Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary School where I was assigned as a foster grandparent. We didn’t succeed, but at least we didn’t have the terrible cuts that the mayor was trying at the time.

That’s when I realized a lot of people from Watsonville were commuting to work in Santa Cruz every day, and when I started asking around, ‘Why is this?’, they said we cannot afford to live with the rents here.

Between all these things, Sanctuary Santa Cruz was born also, because President Trump has threatened to deport every person who was undocumented in the country and build a wall and all those kind of things, and as a response, because I am an immigrant and there was a time when I was undocumented in the United States too, I have a lot of empathy for what is going on.

I put myself in those shoes and decided I needed to do something, so I ended up forming Sanctuary Santa Cruz, and that has been a big project. We have 8,000 volunteers with 77 groups. Now I am trying to advocate in favor of Measure M collecting signatures and getting people to vote.

What compels your wide-ranging activism?

I’m a civil engineer who has a master’s of science in environmental engineering and a Ph.D. in wastewater reuse, so my first love, my first concern was through growing up in Mexico in the desert areas of Northern Mexico. We had two inches of water per year, so water was very limited. The only way the area started economically expanding was through bringing factories into the area because there was no water for it to be agricultural land. And factories were sucking all the water, so the people living there were suffering. The level of water was getting lower and lower and people were experiencing desperation.

The water that was delivered to the people was tasting like oil, like gasoline sometimes. Even the vegetables we could buy in the stores, sometimes they tasted like gasoline too. It got to the point that there was no more water. We had to have containers, and a truck would go once a week and bring water to the neighborhoods.

We had to be very careful with the water because it would have to be for everything: cooking, cleaning, and we wouldn’t have more water until the next week. Growing up under those conditions made me understand the relationship within the capitalists, the growing up of the industrial world, and the misuse of the water. That helped me understand the environmental crisis we are going through right now. That’s something that is really deep into my values.

When we talk about housing, when we talk about people having to commute from Watsonville or Salinas to work here, we shouldn’t have that kind of commute. We have everything that it takes but the will to make it happen.

I also believe that we as a humanity, as a planet, we are in peril right now, so we really need to focus on doing things that are going to help the community and not only some people. And so that’s Measure M to me. This is going to help the community. This is going to help the people who live here, the people who made this place what it is.

What gives you hope that people will hear your message?

One way or another everyone has felt the effects of climate change, or of high rent. Just what happened is that we have been raised as a society to be disconnected from each other. I’ll give you an example. I was talking to a gentleman who lives in the Beach Flats, and he came to let me know that he had witnessed that morning kids at the Santa Cruz High School kicking a brown kid in front of the security guard and the security guard was doing nothing.

So I turned to him and said, “Okay. What did you do?” and he looked at me and said, “Well, nothing. He was not my kid.” and I said, “That’s the problem.” It takes a village to grow a kid, so that kid is everybody’s kid.

And that’s the kind of mentality I am trying to put into the universe. A person is everybody’s person. What happens to one of us is happening to all of us.

Most of the time when I’m talking about Measure M, people have heard lies or misguided arguments, and so when we start talking about it I say, look, this is what happened to me, and this is why I’m supporting this. It may not be the best law that we will have, but it’s a start. And most of the people will agree with that.

As long as I am talking to somebody, I will be able to at least show where I’m coming from and find out what we have in common and start working from there. That’s what I have seen. That’s what keeps giving me hope, that we will be a community again.

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Andrea Patton

About Andrea Patton

Andrea grew up in Salinas, moved to Ohio to teach high school English and journalism, and returned to Santa Cruz where she wrote for Good Times and taught at Cabrillo College. An avid traveler, she currently resides in Seattle.