By Sarah M. Vasquez
“My grandparents were really good storytellers,” said Rebecca Alcantar.
Alcantar loved listening to her grandparents’ stories about their journey to the United States that at times, would make her cry. These stories inspired the work she does today as the deputy director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California (LCHC). Sharing the value in storytelling, one of LCHC’s purposes is to ask how to reduce the barriers or access to advocacy.
“We feel that in our community, we’re advocates. Our families already have to advocate for themselves every single day in different ways, whether it’s figuring out how to find an interpreter that can go with you to the doctor or go to your child’s school. If they have a disability or something, how do you navigate the system that way with some of the challenges that may be transportation or language,” said Alcantar.
Alcantar spearheaded a digital storytelling workshop with LCHC and Luz Collective last Sunday in Santa Ana, California that tapped into the youth’s energy to use social media to share their personal stories that can influence others.
“(Students and community members) are not often the lobbyists in the capitol, but if anything, I think there is more power there because when you’re trying to pass any campaign, the legislators do want to hear from their constituents,” said Alcantar.
Alcantar comes from a family of farm workers.
Growing up, she saw her parents advocate for better work environments. Both of them were part of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a labor union founded by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla. Alcantar remembers going to some of the UFW meetings as a kid where they would talk about workers’ rights and fair pay. It’s through these meetings that she started to feel a passion for creating healthy communities.
“I always had a passion in terms of thinking how to make our community better or how do we make sure that we’re advancing the rights of people that are part of the community that may be often overlooked,” said Alcantar.
As a writer for the University of California, Davis newspaper, Alcantar would write articles that centered around the immigration story. She always felt a sense of pride of where she came from, and coming from an immigrant family, she knew she had it better than her grandparents and parents.
“I always say I felt proud to build off of their stories,” said Alcantar. “I feel like their identity shaped my identity.”
She also realized in college that part of being healthy also depended on her environment. Being close to the capitol, she was exposed to public hearings and the political process and started to enjoy it.
“I really liked how legislators could bring up an issue that was from an issue in their community and do something about it that could have a broader impact,” said Alcantar.
Alcantar worked on different political campaigns with the California Legislature, such as Assembly Bill (AB) 60 that issues driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.
She also worked on a bill related to water contamination, a personal issue from growing up in a house with contaminated water.
“To this day, my parents still buy bottled water,” said Alcantar.
She saw during her time in the state capitol the importance of passing legislation to address some of the health issues she saw growing up, but also saw the need to branch outside the capitol.
“I felt like it was a bubble on its own in that I wasn’t connecting enough with community members, and I wanted to have more of an intentional connection. I wanted to work for an organization that has a mission that was more specific to health and our community,” said Alcantar.
That’s when she joined LCHC and now works on health programs and policies.
“I love my job because we’re able to work with partners that do programming,” said Alcantar. “I learned that there may be good intention with passing a piece of legislation, but things could go wrong when it’s implemented or a program may not be working or solving a problem that it was intended to solve so that’s where the community and program experts are key to be able to improve a policy that was intended to solve a certain issue.”
LCHC works on state and federal legislation with a focus on oral health and healthcare.
“We participated in the past on various communications and campaigns on just changing the narrative and trying to create a better understanding around more the social determinate of both oral health and mental health,” said Alcantar.
The organization was key in passing the California Nutrition Incentives Act that increased the benefits to low-income and working class families with better access to healthier food through the CalFresh program, which is California’s Food Stamp program. LCHC partnered with Roots of Change to work with local farmers and farmers markets to provide fresh fruits and vegetables with Californians that use CalFresh. The program also doubled the purchasing power by matching $1 for every food stamp.
Alcantar was very passionate about this initiative.
“With my farm working background and my family, food has always been central. Food is always seen as a way to to heal or nurture and also a way to show love,” said Alcantar.
That’s why she organizes events such as the digital storytelling workshop to inspire the younger generation to fend off any opposition against LCHC’s campaigns.
“For non-profits, there’s definitely no way we can compete with an industry that’s in opposition to a bill if they hire 15 more lobbyists overnight, but if we do have a base of students who believe in the mission to advance health and they’re sharing their stories online, that’s very powerful,” said Alcantar.