Andrés Soto Plays the Music of Change
The Richmond musician and KPFA radio host is an activists’ activist, championing causes from workers rights and gun violence to the environment.
Photo by Paul Haggard
Polyactivist. There’s no such word, but it’s the perfect description of Andrés Soto, whose causes over the years have included battling gun violence, parent advocacy for Latino youth, and environmental justice.
Born in Berkeley and raised in San Pablo and Richmond, the current Benicia resident is not even close to resting on his laurels. He is the Richmond community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment. He also hosts El Show de Andrés Soto Thursday afternoons on KPFA.
As a student at Contra Costa College in the early ’70s, Soto was a criminal justice major. While there, he met people involved in the United Farm Workers movement and other political causes. He kept his major, eventually graduating with a double certificate in law enforcement and corrections.
But his worldview had changed. He no longer wanted to go into law enforcement. And after a short stint working in a plastics factory, he returned to school at UC Berkeley as a political science major, focusing on Chicano studies. At Berkeley, he had his first real experience in organizing, helping put on 10,000-people Cinco de Mayo events at the university’s Greek Theatre. By the time he graduated, he was a young parent and embarked on 16 years as a parent advocate on behalf of minority students. “[We were] holding the West Contra Costa Unified School District to account for its services,” he said.
In 1991, he began working with a county coalition targeting youth violence protection. “Gun violence was rampant,” Soto said. “And of the 700 federally licensed gun dealers in Contra Costa County, 400 were operating illegally because they did not have state licenses.” He helped lead a years-long battle that eventually included municipalities across both Contra Costa and Alameda counties in the East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership. By 2004, many more anti-gun regulations had been adopted by local cities, and California had passed a bill banning .50-caliber sniper rifles.
It was during this period that Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia met Soto. “He was clearly a community leader with a deep knowledge of local history and strong advocacy skills,” said Gioia. “Andrés knows the backstory and context on issues.”
Always concerned about Richmond’s ongoing struggle with environmental injustice, Soto began his current job with CBE on April 1, 2012. Five days later, the massive Chevron refinery fire sent 15,000 East Bay residents to the hospital for respiratory distress.
“CBE became a locus of information and getting the story out,” Soto said, “as well as educating the community in the aftermath.” On the first anniversary of the fire, he helped lead a protest march of 3,000 people that ended at the refinery gates. Soto began working to ensure the community’s outrage was communicated to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and to raise public awareness of the long history of environmental injustice in Richmond. “He is knowledgeable and persistent,” said Gioia, who sits on BAAQMD’s board. “He is not afraid to stand up and tell authorities they are not being honest.”
Soto created and began leading what he calls “toxics and resilience” tours. These take groups to places in Richmond that continue to emit or create toxic materials, as Soto explains why these sites exist and continue to exist. The tours, however, also include places where the community is creating positive change, such as the Richmond Greenway, Pogo Park, Urban Tilth’s North Richmond Farm, and the giant Solar One project.
One such tour was included as an option during last September’s international Global Climate Action Summit. Attendees from across the country and other countries took the tour with Soto, and participated in a demonstration of what happened to residents during the Chevron fire’s “shelter in place” emergency procedures. (For information about the tours, contact Soto at email@example.com.)
Local environmental activists as well those involved in many other social issues are frequent guests on El Show de Andrés Soto, which Soto began hosting in 2012. “I started listening to KPFA when I was in high school,” he recalled. “I remember hearing live broadcasts from Mandrake’s in Berkeley.” Through his work combating youth gun violence, he met Anita Johnson, longtime host of the station’s Hard Knock Radio.
“I’ve known Andrés for 20 years. He was involved in [the gun violence issue] on youth radio,” she said. When KPFA went through a programming reorganization, Johnson suggested that the station should have a Latinx voice in a prime-time slot. “They said, ‘We need someone who is politically sophisticated … do you know anyone?’ I said, ‘Yes,’” Johnson said. “Andrés Soto.” Unlike some programmers, Johnson pointed out, Soto is in the “throes of things. He’s seen it all and he’s still here.”
Soto adds another of his passions to El Show — music. A professional musician, he plays multiple instruments, including alto sax, clarinet, and flute. Currently, he plays with the Junius Courtney Big Band, the Latin jazz group Bay Breeze, and the West County Wind Symphonic Band, all of which have upcoming performances. (For more information, visit AndresSoto.net.) Every “El Show” includes music, chosen from a wide range of genres. Recent picks include Joe Henderson’s “Blood Life,” Celia Cruz’s version of “Guantanamera,” and The Mambo All-Stars’ “Sunny Ray.”
“My identity as a musician started in the Richmond High School band room. It was a multiracial meritocracy, and it gave me a lifelong gift,” he said. His biggest lifelong gift appears to be eyes that cannot look away from community needs.