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Human rights leader is an organizer of hate crimes forum July 17 in El Cajon

By Mimi Pollack

July 14, 2018 (El Cajon) -- As the executive director of CSA-Center for Social Advocates, Estela de los Rios cares about the well-being of the community. She also has a strong sense of justice, which she developed at an early age. As a human rights activist, she strives to make the world a better place and doesn’t want others to feel the pain of discrimination, something she herself has faced in her life.

CSA is a place where people can come and voice their concerns. It is made up of six agencies that provide community services to East County, including fair housing, immigrant and refugee rights, civic engagement, hate crimes, and human trafficking. It is a place that in her words, “embraces newcomers and community.”

Growing up in rural Brawley, California, de los Rios went to a mostly white elementary school where she was taunted for being Mexican. Recalling her past still brings tears to her eyes as she explained how those taunts made  her feel like she didn’t belong and that she was nothing as a Mexican.

Then in the 10th grade, she had an epiphany while studying about Rosa Parks. She realized that like Parks, she had to do something to make change happen.  Both these incidents shaped her into the person she is today: She feels passionately about fighting for the rights of others and making a difference in other people’s lives through her work at CSA.

De los Rios was born in Tepic, Nayarit. When she was five, she moved to Yuma, Arizona with her mom who worked as a housekeeper there. They later moved to Brawley, where she finished high school, and enrolled in Imperial Valley College to study psychology. She later switched to sociology because she felt she could do more for society. She went on to graduate from SDSU with a degree in sociology.

After college, she first worked in Imperial County as a supervisor in the probation department in El Centro. She married and moved with her husband to San Jose. While living there, she worked for the Santa Clara Housing Authority.  However, her marriage was troubled and after a divorce, she moved to San Diego/El Cajon where she met her second husband and the father of her three children, all girls. Her second husband worked in El Cajon as a cabinet maker. They stayed together until his death in 2006. Today de los Rios stil lives in El Cajon with her children and grandchildren nearby, but since most of her time is spent working at CSA that is really like her second home.

When she first arrived in El Cajon, she worked as a legal assistant with an attorney whose specialty was inmates’ rights. She also began to volunteer at Heartland Human Relations and Fair Housing which later became CSA. This volunteering led to a part-time job and finally a full-time job as a fair housing counselor and human rights director. 

She dealt with all the issues Latinos faced in the East County in the 1980s when the demographics were mostly white and racism more overt.  At that point, even de los Rios thought about moving, especially after her daughter faced verbal abuse and prejudice in high school. However, they stayed put and this strengthened her resolve to fight even more for human rights and against hate.

Her first case as a fair housing counselor was with a Mexican family whose new landlord wanted them to move after he took over from their previous landlord. She helped them by gathering evidence; they won their case in court and were compensated by DFEH, a government agency that works with the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department.

This made her feel proud and she wanted to do more to help others in similar situations, especially as demographics were changing and more Latinos were moving to El Cajon. Together with Pedro Rios, they began to give human rights classes. Her agency also started doing more advocacy for all immigrants as many Middle Easterners were also moving to El Cajon, especially from Iraq.

Today as executive director of CSA, de los Rios has realized that collaborating with other agencies is a powerful tool to fight for the rights of others. She also works closely with License to Freedom, an advocacy group for Middle Easterners, among other organizations.  She is well known and respected. 

Although close to the age when most people retire, she is still going full steam. She feels she needs to continue her work, especially in today’s world and all that is going on. In fact she has been asked about runing for El Cajon City Council seat in 2020 and is seriously considering saying "yes." 

For now, she is focusing her efforts on more immediate actions.    

There will be a “Stop the Hate” rally on July 17th from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  This will be a free forum at the El Cajon Police Department. She feels she needs to take a leadership position to ensure the ongoing animosity against immigrants and refugees ceases. She wants to shift the negative into positive and change the rhetoric in the communities in East County and San Diego.

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