LIFESTYLE

Everyday Heroes: Community activism opened world of possibilities for Erica Fernandez

Erica Fernandez (Photo: Stephanie Strosser/used by permission)

Erica Fernandez (Photo: Stephanie Strosser/used by permission)

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” – Donald Trump

Clearly the Republican presidential candidate never met 25-year-old Erica Fernandez, who was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. at 12 – a young woman who inspires those around her to help others and to make a difference in the world.

Fernandez’s parents immigrated to Oxnard, California – an expansive migrant farming community – when she was only 9. Initially, Fernandez and her two sisters, ages 4 and 13, were left behind in Mexico to fend for themselves. It would be a year before their mother would come back for them, raise the money for the travel and find sponsorship in the U.S. to bring them here.

“I started working in the fields in Mexico when I was 5," Fernandez told Fox News Latino. "My town had no cars and dirt roads. When I got to Oxnard, my only job was to go to school, to do really well and make sure not to cause my family any trouble.”

It was a beach cleanup a few years later that would change Fernandez’s life. 

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While picking up trash that day she learned that the world’s largest mining company BHP, worth several billion dollars, had a proposed a natural gas pipeline to run through Oxnard. 

The company had been spurned by wealthy coastal communities such as Ventura and Camarillo. Resistance from local activists was based on research that suggested the pipeline would produce more than 280 tons of pollutants a year.  

Fernandez decided to get involved – a decision she says that changed her life and opened doors to opportunities she hadn’t been able to imagine before.

“In my family, like many traditional Mexican families, not much is expected from girls other than getting married and having children," Fernandez said. "My community activism gave me a voice.”

When she was 16, Fernandez’s parents decided to leave Oxnard and move to Strathmore, a less expensive city to live in, because Fernandez’s father had gotten ill and was unable to work. 

Fernandez decided to stay in Oxnard and continue with her grassroots organizing to stop the pipeline. That meant living completely on her own, holding down two jobs, continuing with her school work and her spot on the cross-country team and, without telling anyone, living in a garage with no water or electricity. 

“If my mother could raise six kids without an education, I thought, I could do this,” she remembered.

Fernandez became the spokesperson for the younger generation in environmental groups such as the Coastal Alliance, helping to organize the effort against the LNG pipeline. She went door-to-door, handed out fliers and informed people about what they could do to help. 

Bringing more 3,000 people together, Fernandez was able to convince people that the pipeline was hazardous to the community’s health, and Oxnard rejected the project. Fernandez and the Coastal Alliance helped submit a bill in the California Senate (SB 412), which entitles communities to have a say in all proposed coastal constructions.

Fernandez credits a summer program at UCLA with giving her the confidence to know that she could go to college and to find methods to pay for it. She graduated high school at the top of her class, and was honored with the Gates Millennium Scholars Program – funded by a grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. 

The scholarship allowed Fernandez to receive undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford, as well as get a fellowship at the Department of Education’s Bureau of Labor and Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

"I became a U.S. Citizen the same day as Flag Day in June 2012, a week before my undergraduate graduation from Stanford – the American Dream happened in one week. Because I was a legal resident, I was eligible to apply for citizenship and thanks to some of my close Stanford friends and mentors," Fernandez said. 

Today, she’s busy studying for the LSATs and has her heart set on Harvard. 

“It doesn’t hurt to dream," Fernandez told FNL. "My life has been magical. I’m very grateful. I’m advocating for kids to get an education.”

Fernandez often speaks to high schools and colleges, telling her story and encouraging kids to get involved in their community.

“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed," Fernandez's favorite quote starts. "You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. We have seen the future, and the future is ours.” 

The author of that quote isn't Trump, of course. Its Cesar Chavez.

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Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.