A Life of Activism

  • May 17, 2021

Longtime community organizer and activist Lala De La O Cortez is used to working tirelessly on behalf of causes and people who need her help.

“I know that one day my kids might attend East Bay, and I would want the things I saw to be addressed.”

Years before earning her 2021 bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with an emphasis in Black studies, De La O Cortez began organizing at her high school, Impact Academy in Hayward. She continued her activism through her years at Cal State East Bay.

“As I entered these institutions my parents never had a chance to attend – middle school, high school, and college – there were a lot of things I felt needed to be addressed, talked about, and changed,” the student leader explains.

“I know that one day my kids might attend East Bay, and I would want the things I saw to be addressed.”

 Ethnically, De La O Cortez identifies as a villager from Tejalpa, in the Mexican state of Puebla, where she spends two months a year connecting with her Indigenous roots.

In 2019, she worked to remove the university’s prior mascot, Pioneer Pete, because of the associations of pioneers with violent colonization of Indigenous people in North America.

“In my village, seven generations back, everyone was slaughtered, except the babies, who were stolen and survived to make their own families,” she says. “Pioneer Pete was a reminder of the things we lost because of that attack. It was important to not have to see a constant reminder of the violence done to my family.”

Working in 2017 with Students for Quality Education, De La O Cortez lobbied to pass California’s AB 21, a law that, among other actions, requires universities and colleges to shield students from deportation and mandates a contact person who can identify legal, social, and government assistance for immigrant students.

“With great risks presented by changes to immigration policies and enforcement at the federal level, it is more important than ever to work to protect the students, faculty, staff, and the public, and ensure that, regardless of their immigration status, they can continue to take advantage of the education to which they are entitled and are free from intimidation or loss of access to resources and programs that other students enjoy,” the law states.

Though her parents are documented, De La O Cortez says, other family members were deported during her time at East Bay.

“Working on that bill was very important to me,” she said.

Upon high school graduation, she joined the EOP Bridge program, which provided a gateway summer program for her to enter East Bay.

With her passion for social justice, a high school counselor recommended that she major in ethnic studies, noting that she was already involved in learning about various cultures and races. The encouragement continued at Cal State East Bay, where EOP Counselor Dianne Peterson supported and guided her academic journey. 

Now 24, a newlywed expecting twin daughters in summer 2021, De La O Cortez says she plans to earn her doctorate in education so she can teach ethnic studies. 

“Graduating with my degree from East Bay means everything to me,” she says. “As a woman of color, to have the privilege of attending university means a lot.