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Santa Ana resident Juana Dominguez always wondered why her late daughter, Miriam Lopez, devoted so much of her life to activism in the city.

Lopez began such work as a teenager — one of many young people forced to grow up early and spend their formative years advocating for themselves, for their own futures, in a predominantly Latino city where some say the elected, adult decision makers have historically failed many residents

She died from brain and heart complications this month, according to her family, just two years after graduating from California State University, Fullerton. Lopez was 23 years old. 

“I would always tell Miriam, ‘you are out too much. What are you doing?’” Dominguez said at a Jan. 16 memorial service set up for her daughter at La Granjita, a community garden in Santa Ana that locals created to boost healthy, cost-effective food access in the city.

Nearby stood a colorful altar adorned with both childhood and grown up photos of Lopez. Populating La Granjita that day was a community united — those touched by Lopez’ life who had come to show their support for the family.

“And now I get to see the community she was a part of and built,” Dominguez said. 

[ The family is accepting donations here to cover funeral and medical expenses. ]

Activists since Miriam’s passing point out that while City Hall is at times preoccupied by political jockeying, it’s usually Santa Ana’s young people who push the agenda on real quality of life issues, turning out en masse at public meetings to be heard.

Many times they’ve called on elected leaders to spend more money on youth programs and parks. Other times they’ve demanded more help or protections for some of their most vulnerable neighbors and peers. 

Read: Santa Ana’s Youth Go Profane in Public Comment to Get Noticed by City Council

And though such advocacy can be bitter work in a city facing public safety, open park space and housing affordability issues, Lopez’ friends said she remained positive throughout it during her life. 

“Even though things, whatever it is we were working on, were bad things or terrible circumstances — things we were mad about — there was always a positive light about her,” said Yenni Diaz, a board member at Corazón de Mariposas, a cross-cultural community initiative.

Middle, Javier Lopez, Miriam’s father decorates the altar with the help of the community.

Diaz remembers meeting Lopez at Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, a community advocacy and empowerment organization. It was just one of “so, so many things she was a part of,” Diaz said in a Jan. 19 interview.

Lopez notably played a role in spotlighting a lead contamination threat to the city’s children, and also advocated for more active transportation access in the city through initiatives like adding more bike lanes, according to activists and friends. 

That’s just to name a few issues she was a part of, they say, adding that beyond activism, Lopez also devoted herself to Santa Ana’s Latino community and the cultural celebrations around it.

Lopez’ father, Javier, recalled one year where his daughter helped set up a Noche de Altares celebration downtown, rushing to City Hall to acquire permits for the event’s vendors.

He remembers the vendors’ special gratitude toward Miriam for her help. 

“The vendors would want to give her stuff, food, and she would politely decline,” he said during a Jan. 19 phone interview. “She did everything out of the goodness of her heart.”

“She gave herself to so much of what was happening,” said Ruiz, who worked with Lopez at Jóvenes Cultivando Cambios (JCC), a group focused on solving the threat of lead contamination to young Santa Ana children, and the CRECE Urban Farming Cooperative.

Ruiz said he met Lopez through their involvement at the local nonprofit KidWorks, and that she contributed heavily to JCC throughout her life — even voicing a hope last year to reconvene the group that had been somewhat waylaid by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

He also points out that Miriam was essential to redefining what youth engagement in Santa Ana actually means. 

“Miriam’s work really speaks to pushing that envelope to actual youth leadership, where the youth make decisions and aren’t just participants … advocating for how they want to change their city,” Ruiz said. 

Community members share a quiet moment before decorating the altar.

He added that youth programs created and led by adults aren’t as effective as those led by the actual people they’re geared toward.

“When you give that leadership and control to young people, it’s amazing what they can come up with. I was able to see it in JCC. The adults weren’t program coordinators or directors, we called ourselves ‘adult allies’ because we believed we could follow the decisions the youth made in those spaces,” he said, adding:

“It sets the bar high for many of the institutions who claim to help young people in the city.”

Lopez “had the mindset where youth have such a huge voice,” said her younger sister Ana, who’s 17 years old. “I know adults usually see that as, ‘oh, youth are just youth’ … But she always had that mindset where youth always have a voice.”

Dominguez said she’s learned “so much about the fight that my daughter was in.” 

“At the beginning, I would always say, ‘Why are you losing so much time?’ But I realize that her efforts, everything, was worth it,” she said. “Her fight for Latinos, for the community, it was all worth it.”

It reminded Dominguez, through tears, of something her daughter wrote on her college graduation cap: When you see me fly, remember you painted my wings. We made it Mom and Dad.”

Diaz said the community’s unification around Lopez’ family, and her observation that activists’ talking points are being increasingly heard at the government level, fuels her belief that “a change” could be on the horizon for Santa Ana.

“All these things we’ve been working on — that Miriam’s been working on — in the city,” she said, “we believe there is going to be a payoff, more gains for us. Soon.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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