Moving Through Worlds: East Palo Alto Mayor Antonio López Shares His Journey as a Politician, Poet, and Activist

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Photos courtesy of Antonio López

“Sometimes, I forget I am an adapted pariah,” 17-year-old Antonio López wrote in an essay for his junior-year English class. “An outcast who fits everywhere but belongs nowhere. Which universe is the real one?”

López was just one of the six Hispanic students in his grade at Menlo School. His essay, I Can Move Through Worlds, was later published in his school newspaper and Teen Ink. In his piece, López detailed the push and pull he felt between his yearning for a higher education and the struggles of his own neighborhood in East Palo Alto.

“Both realms seem surreal to me,” he wrote. “For both shock me on a daily basis and both have remarkably redefined my perceptions of right and wrong.” 

López, now 28, called me from the mayor’s office in East Palo Alto. López has recently been busy preparing for the upcoming San Mateo District 4 Supervisor election.

López has always been jumping through two worlds, from growing up in East Palo Alto living with his mother, sister, uncle, aunt, and four cousins in a small single-family home to graduating magna cum laude from Duke University, earning two master’s degrees at Rutgers and Oxford, and working on a doctorate at Stanford. 

López’s Adolescence and Journey with Writing

López initially struggled with the learning curve, barely knowing how to type or send an email. “There were a lot of gaps I had, not because I was dumb, but because the quality of the schooling I got in EPA was so subpar compared to a private school like Menlo,” he said. 

At Menlo, López discovered his own voice through writing. In his junior year, his AP American Literature teacher gave the class an essay prompt that asked students to describe their own community and identity. 

For the first time in 17 years, López wrote about his identity and past experiences. “Before that, I didn’t have the ability or the vocabulary to articulate the pains and struggles I had experienced,” he said. 

His essay spread like wildfire throughout the school. “People that I had never even met would pull me aside and say, ‘Tony, Tony, that was the best piece of writing I’ve ever read.’ I showed it to my mom, and it made her cry,” López said. “I realized that I had a superpower. I’m able to make people understand experiences that they do not even know about.”

In 2021, López published Gentefication, a book that details the experiences and pressures of living as a first-generation Mexican-American kid in Silicon Valley through poetry. “I wanted to tell a story about what it’s like for a kid to become ‘successful,’” López said. “But what are the repercussions of that? It’s great that I got into college, but what about the kids who didn’t? Or the struggles that I had when I was in college that many first-generation kids have?” 

“It’s a story that’s for everyone. It’s an American story. It’s about inviting people into the conversation and prompting reflection of other kids’ experiences, whether they relate to it or not,” he said. “It’s a story to spark dialogue and a story to unify divisions: the invisible walls that I’ve seen put up my whole life, through zip codes in this county, this area––this place we call home.”

Finding Himself Through Faith 

In addition to studying philosophy and fine arts, López also graduated from Duke with a major in African-American and Black Studies and obtained his master’s in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford.  

“I wanted to have an undergraduate career that reflected the diversity of my childhood,” López said. “It’s the multicultural fabric that is at the heart of East Palo Alto. I was always frustrated by people who only stayed in their lane and only advocated for their ethnic group, neighborhood, or community. In East Palo Alto, we can’t afford to be divisive or tribalistic like that.” 

In his senior year at Duke, López converted to Islam. Growing up reading Malcolm X and watching speeches from ministers and civil leaders, López was always interested in the Black Power and Civil Rights movements and their ties to the Islamic faith. “I always saw the African American experience as something that every community should know about, study, and really understand,” he said.

“The Islam that I fell in love with was an American Islam that has always been about justice, mercy, and compassion for our fellow people. So, when I was at Duke as an activist, I was advocating in solidarity with the African American community, the Asian community, the Native American community, and more.”

“Islam came at a very pivotal time in my life, where I needed to transform not just as a political leader, but in terms of my own fate and my spiritual practice,” he said. Despite growing up in a Catholic household where church and faith played a significant role in López’s culture, he felt that the religion didn’t fully speak to him. “I felt like I was missing something that spoke to my heart directly,” he said. But when he was alone and able to discover new cultures and histories and pursue these beliefs, López was truly able to find himself. 

On the Campaign Trail

López ran for a City Council position in 2020 and was appointed as the mayor of EPA last December. He is now running for San Mateo District 4 Supervisor, where he would represent the city of East Palo Alto and parts of west Redwood City.

López’s decisions to run have always been the same: he sees the disparity between the two worlds he lives in and takes it upon himself to bridge the gap, whether it be for affordable housing, tenant protections, extracurricular opportunities for youth, or investing in early childcare. 

“I want to take those experiences advocating for EPA residents advocating for a new library advocating for better parks, and programming camps for our kids during the summer, and our seniors, advocating for public safety, so that East Palo Alto isn’t the murder capital, but is actually a place that is one of the safest cities in the Peninsula right now,” he said. 

Community Advocacy, Education, and Affordable Housing

While it is true that the struggles López describes from his childhood still exist in East Palo Alto today, the same city has seen significant improvement. but it wasn’t a sudden change. It was decades of hard work–––of community organizing, perseverance, and dedication. 

Even from 1994, when López was born, he already saw this effort taking place. “I grew up in a time when the city was changing that narrative. People were organizing, getting involved in pushing drugs out of the streets, and giving kids a safer place to live and eat. When I was in kindergarten, I was in one of the first English as a Second Language classes the district has ever faced.”

“When you ask me how I got where I am today, one of the layers is, having seen from a young age, some of the injustices and inequalities that are baked into our county, in our community. But secondly, it’s the opposite–––it’s people coming together,” he said. 

“We grew up pretty humble and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But we did have hope, and we had each other. It’s that kind of intimacy, that community space, or just looking after each other that spirit that is intrinsic to East Palo Alto’s history that allowed me to really push forth and, and fight for a better future better community.” 

No one should disagree with the fact that a teacher should have a right to live here. Straight up. You’re teaching kids, you’re preparing the future of this county, why shouldn’t you have a roof over your head?

During his time as mayor, López has supported the passage of Measure I for Ravenswood City School District, a $110 million school bond measure, and Measure W for Sequoia Union High School District, a $591 million bond measure to repair and upgrade the infrastructure and classrooms throughout the district. 

López also affirms measures to increase affordable housing for teachers. “It was because of teachers and educators that my life was able to transform,” he said. To do this, he plans to work with cities and school boards to support workforce housing for teachers, and, when needed, invest county dollars to fill any funding gaps. 

“We have a crisis of affordable affordability here in San Mateo. And teachers are experiencing the brunt of it. I don’t care what anyone says. No one should disagree with the fact that a teacher should have a right to live here. Straight up. You’re teaching kids, you’re preparing the future of this county, why shouldn’t you have a roof over your head?”

Environmental Policy and Greenlining

One of the prime issues López points to address is canopy coverage. This issue, also known as “greenlining,” marks inherent disparities in the presence of trees across socioeconomic borders. 

According to the Public Health Institute’s California Healthy Places Index, Palo Alto’s neighborhood tree coverage goes to as high as 25% in some areas. On the other hand, canopy coverage ranges from one neighborhood with 12% to the rest with 6% in East Palo Alto.

Tree coverage helps not only manage extreme temperatures but also manages stormwater, rain, UV rays, water, and air pollution, helping the reduction of energy bills, asthma, and even crime.  

López also contributed to the creation of the East Palo Alto Urban Forest Master Plan, the first master plan for the city to track, monitor, and implement policies that are going to protect its trees. As a supervisor, he hopes to work with nonprofits and create development projects that accelerate and expand tree canopy coverage programs.

For López, his entire life has been about moving throughout worlds, from growing up in East Palo Alto to graduating from Oxford. “For me, both worlds make me who I am,” he said. “I want to take those skill sets and show people we can be better than the division and the bigotry and the prejudice that we’re seeing on a national level.” 

“And, I humbly will say, no other candidate in the race has that experience,” López added. “That’s what this county needs–someone who’s a fighter and who can translate some of the different qualities of life we have baked into the district.” 

You can learn more about López and read his poetry here

Celine Chien is a junior in her second year at the Chronicle. She is a Design Lead for the Mark, a copy editor, and reports on detracking and community news. Celine is on M-A's debate team, Leadership-ASB, and loves to cook and spend time with her family.

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