Bringing ‘Light and Love’

Theresa Gonzales, the new executive director of Oakland’s Centro Legal de La Raza, is combatting the current climate of “fear and isolation” for immigrants and people of color.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

During the past decade and a half, Theresa Gonzales has been on a mission to help others, particularly low-income people of color. The fast-talking 42-year-old herself overcame a youth of poverty, homelessness, family dysfunction, and incarceration. And now she’s the new executive director of Oakland’s Centro Legal de La Raza, a high-profile nonprofit that helps immigrants facing deportation, low-income families threatened by displacement, and workers seeking protection of their rights.

Gonzales has always been comfortable pulling levers behind the curtain, but at Centro Legal, she’s stepping into the limelight. “I’m definitely more of a small group person, but I’m coming out of my shell,” she said. “I’ve always been comfortable just making things happen behind the scenes. That’s my thing. Being out on the forefront, there’s definitely a huge amount of humility and honor behind that.”

At Centro Legal, Gonzales will run a nearly 50-year-old organization that has tripled in size during the last three years, largely as a result of new government contracts and private donor support. Centro Legal de La Raza now has a staff of 75 and an annual budget of $9.6 million.

Gonzales said her main focus will be on bolstering the internal strength of the organization — one of her areas of expertise — as well as its core programs, the largest of which centers on immigration. The nonprofit’s other programs focus on workers’ rights, tenants’ rights, litigation, and a Youth Law Academy, which works to increase access to college and the legal profession for low-income Oakland students, especially high school students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

Centro Legal board member and co-founder Albert Moreno, retired general counsel of Levi Strauss & Co., said the board hired Gonzales because she was an experienced, strong, and competent administrative leader, but also because she is a very empathetic person.

“I think she will be able to bring together the team we already have at Centro, which has grown tremendously,” Moreno said. “We think we’ve hired ourselves a gem, which will serve Centro Legal well for many years.”

In addition to advancing economic and racial justice through legal services, Gonzales wants the nonprofit to do as much as possible to help develop leaders internally and in the community, and sees the organization as having an important advocacy role on issues like housing, employment, policing, and punishment — and allocating tax money toward long-term community reinvestment.

“Being there’s so many opportunities in the Bay Area, yet the disparities are so great, it is really a profound time for movement-building in the way of addressing everything from mass criminalization, displacement, or gentrification,” Gonzales said. “In this climate of fear and isolation and polarization, there’s not enough light and love, and one of my main goals is to try to bring that to Centro Legal.”

Often partnering with other law firms, Centro Legal is involved in numerous class-action lawsuits in Oakland and throughout the state and nation. Gonzales proudly noted that just before she took her new position, Centro Legal, together with the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, settled a case for housekeepers at a hotel in East Oakland. The lawsuit alleged failure to pay overtime and provide sick leave, retaliation against employees who called in sick, refusal to provide rest breaks, and other unlawful conduct. The settlement required improved working conditions and compensation for the plaintiff housekeepers.

Another case was the recent settlement for over $2 million on behalf of some 115 tenants and their children who had faced asthma-inducing mold, lead paint, bedbug and rodent bites, and other substandard conditions at their Fruitvale apartment complex.

In the age of Trump, Gonzales said it would be easy “to get lost in the global conversation.” When she looks at many of the problems facing poor people of color today, she sees a history of oppression, colonialism, displacement, racism, and skewed economic systems. “But it is important to focus on realistic strategies and interventions that will change life trajectories for people of color” in the Bay Area, she said.

At the same time, Gonzales also sees the need for more advocacy across Northern California, and she is contemplating ways to expand workers’ rights at day labor centers and promoting legislation at the local and state levels.

Underneath it all for Gonzales is a passion for justice for vulnerable populations, a sentiment that was profoundly impacted by her experience personally and professionally with police and courts and detention — and watching various other family members’ incarceration. “The justice system is one of most the most archaic institutions out of all the institutions we have in our nation,” she said. “It’s based on a very old model of punishment and exile and a philosophy of irredeemability of people.”

Gonzales was born in Albuquerque, N.M., and her mother was a drug addict and her father was periodically behind bars. Her parents divorced when she was a toddler. Gonzales’ mother was a domestic worker, and her father was a carpenter who did construction and day labor. They were poor, and she recalls being homeless frequently. She attended 11 different elementary schools. “We slept on a lot of couches, a lot of streets,” she said.

At the age of 14, Gonzales got caught up in the juvenile justice system when police looking for auto burglars raided a house party she attended with a cousin. She was detained for several months because there was no parent to pick her up, though her mother eventually did come, and she was released. “My family was not looking out for me,” she said.

Gonzales was placed on probation and later got into trouble again after she went to live with her father and he called her in as a runaway. She was in out of the justice system as a youth until the age of 21, mostly for technical and status offenses.

“I was very lucky to make it out,” she said, “based on my own history, with multigenerational incarceration in my family.”

Gonzales passed a high school equivalency exam at age 16 while in detention and was pregnant with her first child by age 17. She was married to her youngest daughter’s father for a short time, but he subsequently went to prison for armed robbery, along with Gonzales’ younger brother, his accomplice, for whom she had been trying to act as a parent. Her younger brother was 18 years old when he was sent to a prison facility 78 miles away, a traumatizing experience for her. 

Gonzales had three daughters by the age of 22. As a single mom, she barely supported herself with work in restaurants, cleaning hotel rooms, and under-the-table cash jobs. She supplemented her income with public benefits and affordable housing. “Being a single mother with three daughters, working three jobs, not being able to pay the bills, I felt there was no way out,” she said.

During those trying years, Gonzales benefitted hugely from the love and support of the family of her best friend from middle school — undocumented immigrants — who helped her raise her children. At one point, her three children lived separately with members of her own family while she worked and attended school.

Remarkably, Gonzales said that today her daughters are all doing well, with one working for an insurance company in Cincinnati, another studying pre-medicine in Albuquerque, and a third, who is 19, living with her in Oakland and attending Diablo Valley College. Gonzales also has a 10-year-old adopted son who lives with his father in Albuquerque.

“All of my children, I instilled in them the value of education,” Gonzales said. “They have had a lot of hardship and adversity, but they have a strong work ethic, and they are survivors.”

School and work have been Gonzales’ salvation. From the time she was 12, when she first left home, until recently, Gonzales has always had two or three jobs, be they volunteer or paid, so that in addition to the major positions she lists on her résumé, there are numerous others in which she had significant responsibilities and learning opportunities.

It was not until 2001, at the age of 24, that Gonzales personally seized upon education as the way out of poverty and the cycle of violence she continually experienced. She became the first in her family to complete college and received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s in health education, both from the University of New Mexico. She also started a doctorate program in organizational leadership in 2015 through a private religious college in Phoenix.

Gonzales launched her career as an activist in 2003 and for two years helped organize voter registration drives. From 2003 to 2011, Gonzales was also the director of two faith-based residential facilities for women, including one from which she had recently graduated as a young mother.

Gonzales worked from 2007 to 2010 at a drug abuse prevention program and from 2006 to 2014 at the El Centro de la Raza at the University of New Mexico, first as a program coordinator and later as a community program specialist. Since 2009, she also provided nonprofit consulting.

In recent years, Gonzales moved relatively rapidly through positions at three nonprofits before taking the top job at Centro Legal.

From 2014 to 2016, Gonzales was the co-executive director of the La Plazita Institute, a nonprofit in Albuquerque that aims to help people, particularly of Latino or Native American heritage, to heal from trauma related to factors like multigenerational poverty, gang involvement, and substance abuse addiction.

Gonzales briefly touched down in Oakland from October 2016 to November 2017 as a national consultant for the W. Haywood Burns Institute, which advocates against mass incarceration in the United States, with a particular focus on reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

“Mass criminalization — we know it hasn’t worked,” said Gonzales, calling the United States “addicted” to a system for punishing crime that is “archaic,” ineffective, and “Eurocentric.”

After a year, Gonzales was recruited to be deputy director of Fathers & Families of San Joaquin, a Stockton nonprofit that provides social and re-entry services for formerly incarcerated youth and adults. The agency focuses on mental health and cultural healing, particularly around gun crime, and operates a trauma recovery center for victims of violence.

Though Gonzales stayed there for only a year, Fathers & Families Executive Director Sammy Nunez said she significantly strengthened the agency’s infrastructure, rewriting organizational documents, bolstering grant writing, and helping stimulate a period of strong growth.

“They’re [Centro Legal] lucky to have her,” Nunez said.

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