Saturday, May 25, 2019

From San Salvador to Fruitvale, Barbara Zavala lives out the legacy of Oscar Romero

Guest blogger: Flavio Bravo, Masters in Migration Studies, graduate student, University of San Francisco

Every Thursday morning, Barbara Zavala can be found in East Oakland leading a weekly food distribution to over 300 families. Rain or shine, even during the weeks of Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Zavala and her team of volunteers at the Oakland Catholic Worker are committed to serving first-and-second generation immigrant families within Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. With Latinos accounting for over 53% of the neighborhood’s population, Zavala shares not only a cultural connection but attributes her own personal immigrant experience to being able to understand the needs of the community.

Central American Roots

Almost thirty years ago, on August 6, 1990, Zavala migrated from El Salvador to the Fruitvale neighborhood. Prior to her arrival, Zavala and her family were victims of extreme violence at the hands of the Salvadoran government during the country’s internal armed conflict which lasted between 1980 and 1992.

Over the course of these twelve years, this country that is around the same geographical size as the state of Massachusetts yet with around 370,000 fewer people, received over USD $4.5 billion in U.S. aid largely funding its civil war. The impact of this state violence affected over 75,000 civilians of El Salvador and led to Zavala’s father being captured by the Salvadoran armed forces before her family fled to Honduras and eventually seeking asylum at the United States border.

When Zavala arrived to the Oakland Catholic Worker in 1990, she found a community organization dedicated to assisting migrant families from Latin America resettle in the Bay Area. She received housing for two months and fifteen days before transitioning out and working a series of different jobs from preparing meals at Paula LeDuc Fine Catering, to working at San Francisco Foods grocery store, before becoming a chef at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley proudly preparing Salvadoran pupusas and tamales for Jesuit priests within the community.

Paying it Forward in Fruitvale

Even while working various jobs across the Bay Area, Zavala never completely left the Oakland Catholic Worker community. After being a consistent volunteer for twenty-five years, she is currently approaching her fourth anniversary of being a full-time staff member as the House and Property Manager.

Having lived in a space with ten people during her initial stay at the Worker, Zavala does everything she can to improve the experiences of newly arrived migrant families. This means helping them find work, enroll their children in schools, and assisting them find more permanent housing. When asked about what changes in the Fruitvale neighborhood she’s witnessed over the last thirty years, Zavala referenced the high-level of violence and the soaring cost of living.

Although 75 days of free housing was enough in 1990 for her to transition out with a stable job and apartment, the Worker currently offers at minimum four months of housing with some families staying for up to one year due to being unable to find an affordable place to live.

Much of her advice offered to newly arrived migrant families involves warning them of the ever-present violence in the streets of Oakland and to be wary of notarios who have been known to steal thousands of dollars without actually being able to advance immigration cases. Zavala, herself, was the victim of attorney theft in 1996 losing a total of USD $10,000 by an accredited attorney who promised to process her daughter’s cases after Zavala had received a work permit, only for the attorney to deny having ever received the payment.

Given the challenges that she and her family have faced, Zavala continuously seeks to pay it forward and assist families who are trying to navigate the immigrant experience in the U.S.

Que Viva Santo Romero

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Oakland Catholic Worker was founded under the corporal works of mercy in mind, of which some include: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty; clothing the naked; and giving shelter to travelers. With this in mind, Zavala and her team are committed to offering temporary housing, collaborating with the Alameda County Community Foodbank to address food insecurity, and advocating for more humane immigration policies regularly delivering presentations across the Bay Area.

Having shared her personal story with high school and university groups in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, Zavala finds great hope and inspiration in the life of the former Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. As stated by Zavala: “Romero spoke the truth as someone dedicated to the poor and to the children of El Salvador. He was a defender of the poor, and for that, he was assassinated.”

Currently, Zavala has four kids and seven grandchildren in the U.S. and three kids and twelve grandchildren who remain in El Salvador. With the tragic loss of her recent daughter last year to leukemia, Zavala receives great hope to know that her own daughter passed away in the same hospital as the newly canonized Saint.

Zavala’s leadership and unwavering dedication to both improve her community of Fruitvale, while keeping her home of San Salvador forever in her heart speak greatly to the reality of the immigrant experience. Yet in her case, she has not only found a home in more places than one but has helped other migrant families find one as well.


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