Eric Guerra is co-chair of the Latino Legislative Staff Association and a Legislative aide to Senator Gil Cedillo. He grew up in a family of undocumented workers.
How did you get started in politics?
A friend drove me out to a campaign out in North Hollywood and told me that we were going to have a great time in Los Angeles and party on the beaches, and the next thing you know, I’m doing precinct walking for Tony Cardenas. My last year in college, I got involved in student government. I really didn’t have much interest in elected government or state government—I guess the biggest thing for me was finding out how organizing people and pushing on issues made change on policy on campuses.
That got me connected with some folks with Governor Gray Davis’s office and they put me on the Board of Trustees for the CSU’s. While I was there, somebody told me about this fellowship program. I interviewed with Senator Cedillo’s office. I was undocumented as a kid, so everything just clicked.
You said you were undocumented?
Yeah. It’s not uncommon. My mother would say, “If you ever see a green van, don’t open the door.” I grew up in a small farming town. We just kind of blended in. I got my amnesty, but I didn’t actually become a citizen until 2002. I remember when I first got to the country we ended up at this Greyhound Station here on 8th and L and we went to go get some jackets at that Woolworth’s on K Street. I didn’t really recall that memory until I was getting sworn in at the Crest Theater.
Tell me about the work you’re doing.
I kind of got pulled in on the drivers icense bill because I was just going through the process, going from undocumented to temporary legal status, to legal, to permanent resident status, to applying for citizenship on my own as an adult. I actually failed my [first] history test for the citizenship exam and the federal agent was like, “What, I thought you went to school here?” and I was like, “I did, I went to school in California.”
I helped with a lot of the research with the driver’s license bill after the repeal in 2003 and then with the development of the California Dream Act, which is a financial aid for undocumented students. When I was on the [CSU] Board of Trustees, I was trying to work with [Chancellor] Charlie Reed and some of the Administration to try to figure out a way to do fee waivers for undocumented students, but it’s a very politically hot-button issue. Some of my friends that I went to school with, and these were very talented, super smart engineers, they were undocumented, and they were sleeping on my floor and I was just ashamed that they had to do that. People believe that immigrants don’t want to assimilate, [but] it’s just that they don’t know how to.
What about safety concerns about granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants?
Nine other states already do it. Even a conservative state like Utah. If we’re relying on the DMV to be the last resort for national security, we have bigger issues. We have over three million people that are undocumented in California. 2.5 million of those are above the driving age,
in a non-public transportation state. Is it unsafe to allow them to apply and become trained and understand the rules of the road? You’re pretty involved in the Latino Caucus and speaker’s series?
Cedillo and Assembly member Joe Coto work on the speaker’s series. It’s an attempt to deal with a couple of issues. One, educating our staff on the issue that Latinos will at some point become the majority and it’s about being proactive and understanding the challenges that face this state as the population grows. The other aspect is with term limits. We have to teach this stuff to the new staff that’s coming in and the new members that are coming in.
Our purpose is to encourage as many non-legislative staffers to participate and also Republican staffers to participate. Even if they don’t agree, you’re able to have more constructive criticism. Everything both on the left and on the right is driven by rhetoric and people on the left side who are screaming “Open borders, Open borders,” and people on the right side are saying, “Put them on carts and ship them back to Mexico.”
You’ve even gotten Geraldo Rivera to speak. Does his mustache look as good in person?
He was an exceptional speaker and a very humble person. You would think that as well known as he is, that he would be a little more pretentious. He was telling us about his experience growing up as a poor kid, involved in gang life. Somebody reached out, and got him involved in yachting, and that’s how he was exposed to other opportunities. And so you hear theses anecdotes, and he’s a good example of when you reach out to a lot of these communities.
One of the reasons I think work for Senator Cedillo is that he does things like the Young Senator’s Program in his district to reach out to young kids and get them involved in government. And the Latino’s Staff Association reaches out to high school kids, to bring them into the Capitol and have them be exposed for a couple months. It’s not just that we’re helping out 10 or 15 kids here, but they go back and they talk to their friends. It’s that ripple effect that we want.
What does Eric Guerra like to do to relax?
I play guitar. I was in a band for about seven years. I go garden with my mother. I’m the kind of guy that just likes to go out, hang with people, and have a good time.