More than 150 Attend Memorial for Pasadena Education, Immigrant Rights Activist Raul Borbon

The day after Raul Borbon died the winds, like demons, threw themselves off the peaks of the San Gabriels and wishbone-snapped every tree in their reach. I drove around the carpets of fallen branches and trees, avoided closed streets on my way last Friday to the memorial in honor of Borbon. He died a week ago today of complications from cancer. He was 56 years old.

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Seven or eight women readied the auditorium at the Villa Parke community center about 45 minutes before the memorial began. Roberta Martinez helped arrange the calla lilies and irises in several vases. On one of the walls, Lilia Hernandez explained, were several large sheets of paper ripped from a large pad used by mediators. Borbon led many mediations. On the paper Hernandez had glued a reproduction of a painting of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, on another an image of the band The Doors, and on a third a reference to the Dream Act, all things that Borbon felt strongly about. In front of the wall stood an altar that included more things from Borbon's life, a Cookie Monster doll, and a wood carving of the word "maestro," teacher.

Hernandez and others told me about the Tale of Two Pasadenas, which is how they described the dichotomy Pasadena residents live with every day, the mansions of the south and the ghettos of the north.

Borbon led English literacy workshops for immigrant men and women. Veronica Velez , who soaked up education liberation theory with Borbon, said her most vivid memory of Borbon was when he deputized her to teach English at La Escuelita. Can you conjugate the verb, to be, he asked. Velez is now earning her doctorate in education at UCLA.

About a decade ago Olivia Trujillo found herself at La Escuelita, trying to learn English to find the key to the American Dream. She sang me the alphabet song in English, that's what she remembers about Borbon. And he helped her and several other Spanish speaking women open a house-cleaning coop.

As the auditorium filled up, it struck me that three quarters or more of the people there were women, mostly Spanish speaking women, ones who clean houses and work in factories.

There was also a group of people in their 20s who'd marched and protested with Borbon for the passage of the Dream Act.

Once the memorial began Velez took the microphone and got through about half of what she had to say without choking up. Borbon was a Mexican immigrant but this memorial was not for a macho Mexicano. It was for a man who empowered people by showing them their own worth and shedding light on the possibilities that lay ahead with some amount of learning.

Aztec dancers stomped a funerary beat with the rattles wrapped around their legs. They were followed by the strong incense smell of copal.

Borbon's widow, Susana Zamorano, sat in the front row. She got up and took the microphone to read a passage printed in English and Spanish in the program. It was a goodbye letter he'd dictated to her from his deathbed. She paused for five breaths before she read it. This is how it began. "I leave in peace because I know that the road we started to pave together won't be left unfinished since the responsibility of completing it remains in your hands."

I crouched about ten feet in front of her, watching that my recorder was on and capturing the moment. Behind me, as I looked back, glistening streams of tears marked the brown cheeks of many women. He'd empowered them and now the maestro was gone. But he'd told them that he'll be there with them as they reach for their goals and to remember that "Compartiendo se sigue aprendiendo," by sharing you continue to learn.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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