Arcenio López, and his dedication to elevate the voices of Indigenous migrants in California
The Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, where López is executive director, recently won new funding through Bank of America’s Racial Equality Award.
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When Arcenio López first moved to the United States from Mexico, he worked as a farm worker, following in the footsteps of his grandparents and parents.
“I’m part of a community where agriculture is very important historically,” said López, who is originally from Oaxaca, in an interview with AL DÍA.
His grandparents would migrate to different parts of Mexico to do agricultural work.
Growing up in that environment and hearing various stories, López learned early how difficult farm work is. That is the reason why he was always encouraged by his elders to pursue an education.
“But when I encountered myself in a situation where I couldn’t afford my own university education and making the decision to get to the United States… I didn’t see another option at that time,” he reflected.
His father and older brother were both already in the U.S. and working in the fields, so in 2003, López did the same, settling in Oxnard, California.
Three years later, he was hired by the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), where he now serves as its executive director.
López is the first Indigenous executive director of the organization and uses his platform to elevate the voices of Hispanic and Latino indigenous people across California.
“The whole motivation I had since I began was really to bring and create more visibility on the presence of Indigenous migrants and the diversity that we as Mexican immigrants bring,” he said.
In October 2022, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project was announced by Bank of America as part of the second group of honorees of its Neighborhood Builders: Racial Equality Award.
The award recognizes individuals and organizations that are leading the way in advancing racial equity and economic opportunity for diverse communities
“It feels good that they recognized the work, but for me, I feel there is even more responsibility to create more capacity to be able to have these conversations,” López said.
With the new funding, López can add another layer to the work he has been doing now for over a decade with the organization.
Becoming a Community Organizer
While working as a farm worker, López encountered many of his colleagues — many of whom were also Indigenous migrants — being discriminated against and taken advantage of.
“I was bothered by it,” he highlighted. “I was angry and I was sad about it.”
The situation bothered him enough that he wanted to do something to help his people.
“That really encouraged me to take the initiative of just looking to our community in Oxnard, Ventura County, and I went back to that one nonprofit that supported my parents with their immigration process,” said López.
That organization was El Concilio Family Services.
Remembering how supportive the organization was of his father and his family, López went to El Concilio with a desire to support his community as a volunteer.
His long-term goal was to start an adult learning program to teach farmworkers how to read and write, effectively empowering them to stand up for themselves in the face of racism and discrimination.
It was through this effort that he first became introduced to MICOP.
López was invited to be a part of one of the organization’s committees, which began what he calls “a transformation” within himself.
“I felt welcome, I felt like I was at home… I just felt like I found my place,” he added.
The feeling López encountered when he first got involved with MICOP hasn’t waned. In fact, it has served as the primary catalyst that has kept him with the organization all these years.
A Decade-and-a-Half’s Worth of Work
Since joining MICOP in 2006, López has left an indelible mark on the organization and his community.
Through MICOP, he was able to launch the adult literacy program he had set out to establish.
He later started a committee of indigenous leaders, and has engaged with local government representatives to promote civic engagement and propose legislation prohibiting derogatory or misrepresented words against Indigenous people.
In addition, López also helped formalize the organization’s Indigenous interpreters program to address the language barrier many in the community faced, and created an Indigenous high school youth group that later went on to launch a successful anti-discrimination campaign that brought attention to some of the challenges Indigenous students were facing in their local school districts.
“I was just launching and restructuring new programs not only that I felt was needed by the community, but was actually with the input of many of our community leaders,” said López.
Given the impact he was able to make throughout his tenure with the organization, when MICOP was looking to appoint a new executive director in 2010, López threw his name in the race.
He applied for the position but was initially not selected, instead being promoted to associate director.
However, MICOP’s Board of Directors was intentional in hiring an executive director with a four-year plan in place. Part of the role as executive director was to mentor and support their eventual successor.
López was that successor, becoming MICOP’s new executive director in 2014, holding the distinction as the first Indigenous executive director of the organization.
Coming from Mexico and having to learn about U.S. systems and customs brought out some fear for López. So, too, did not really know how the nonprofit dynamics worked in the U.S.
“Also I was very conscious that I was seen differently when I was interacting with or engaging with funders,” he added, noting there were also times when he felt others didn’t believe in his skills or capacity.
Over time, those factors turned into internal struggles of self-doubt.
However, the more time he spent working on different initiatives with MICOP, the more he started to build his self-confidence.
There came a point when López’s mindset transformed into one where he needed to take matters into his own hands and be a voice for the Indigenous community rather than letting someone who isn’t part of that community be the voice.
“Having a group of people in the organization who have similar values and ideas was very helpful,” he noted.
Through MICOP, he found an opportunity to lead and provide guidance for those who need it most.
To this end, he sends a message to other Indigenous leaders to not be afraid and simply believe in themselves and their abilities.
Looking to the Future of the DE&I Conversation
As a recipient of the Neighborhood Builders: Racial Equality Award, López is excited to expand on the work he has already done in his decade-plus with the organization.
With DE&I a big topic of discussion in recent years, López is thankful to large corporations like Bank of America for putting a bigger spotlight on this conversation.
“I think it says a lot being part of the narrative and actually having tangible actions like giving funds to support that movement,” he said.
A key element he hopes to further address is language justice and access, which López notes is a part of the DE&I discussion that is often excluded.
He is also hoping to expand the organization’s work in addressing labor justice.
López noted that between 60% to 70% of California’s labor force is represented by Indigenous migrants.
“So, for the next year or two, we went to work on better pay for farmworkers,” he said, noting the specific importance given that farm work is not a year-round job for the most part.
The additional funding through the Racial Equality Award will go a long way toward helping López and MICOP further impact the lives of Indigenous people across the California region.
“We feel fortunate and grateful about the support and also the opportunity to have access to this,” López said.
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