*Original article appeared in The Californian
City Council meetings in most municipalities are notorious for being lengthy if not tedious. Meetings can run for hours at a time with a protocol that can be confusing to the average citizen. Little surprise that they typically attract an older crowd. But at the Salinas City Council meetings there sits an anomaly; Anthony Rocha is an 18-year-old Salinas resident who has been attending meetings religiously since last August. You’ll find him sitting in the front row, often front and center. You’ll find him at the podium during public comment, sharing his perspectives on a spectrum of the city’s hot-button issues.
On the welcoming resolution: “It was too weak and we were doing a disservice to our residents, and our farmworkers to not have the courage to stand up to Donald Trump, and declare ourselves a sanctuary city.”
On the need for more parks and recreation: “Some council members didn’t want to expand El Gabilan Library. Their concern was with the budget. My concern is whenever it becomes a thing on the budget, the first group of people and part of the community to get cut are young people, and young people make the majority of the population.”
Rocha has a point. Salinas is a young city with an average age of 28, according to the U.S. Census.
“I think the city should invest more in our young people because our young people are the future,” said Rocha on a recent weekday morning at the Cherry Bean coffee shop in downtown Salinas.
Another mission is getting more young people involved in local government, and to understand the impact involvement can make. Rocha said: “There’s a saying if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. When I see the commissions, there are no young people sitting on these commissions. I feel it’s my duty as a young person to sit and be the voice for young people. There aren’t that many young people in government and we are a young city.”
That said, he acknowledges “government is boring to most people. ... Government is difficult. You’ll get lots of 'No's' before you get a 'Maybe' and a hundred 'Maybe's" before you get a 'Yes.' " He’s had folks caution him that “politics isn’t for kids.” His involvement doesn’t start and stop with city council meetings. Most recently he joined the library and community services commission, making him one of the city’s youngest commissioners. He recently joined the Monterey County Mental Health Commission. He’s a member of the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP), a coalition of organizations and leaders from Salinas and Monterey County who are working to reduce violence.
How it started
Rocha said his foray into city politics started over two years ago with the fatal shooting of Carlos Robles, a North Salinas football player. At the time, Rocha was a junior at Everett Alvarez High School. Rocha, in his role as an advocate, surfaced when he approached the school administration about holding a forum or a discussion on youth violence. “At my school, ... they did something over the intercom, but they didn’t really address the issue,” Rocha said. That’s when he attended his first city council meeting and shared his concern. Soon after that, he joined the Youth Advisory Commission. “I had never actually wanted to get involved in government. I was just getting involved in my community because I thought there needed to be a stronger voice for young people. I just saw the youth commission as a voice for young people,” he said.
Rocha played a significant part in the recent launch of the Youth and Government Institute, a summer program sponsored and run by the city of Salinas, which introduces youth to the inner workings of local government. He met with Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter and various City Councilmembers to advocate for the program. He serves as the lead mentor for the Institute where he works closely with the 35 participants.
Government and politics don't run in the blood.
Rocha was born and raised in Salinas; his father Antonio was born in Mexico and raised in Greenfield where he later worked in the fields. His mother Anet Anguiano was born and raised in Greenfield and currently works for the Defense Language Institute. His father passed away when he was 5, leaving his mother to raise his sister Stephanie, now a junior at Everett Alvarez, and him. Growing up, Rocha said he read a lot and watched a lot of news because the family only had the basic channels. “My family doesn’t really have an interest in government and politics, and they are surprised that I got so involved and good at it, but they are very supportive of me,” he said.
Rocha has gained the attention of city staff and locally elected officials. Planning commissioner Jyl Lutes and City Councilmember Gloria De La Rosa have taken Rocha under their wing and served as his mentor and sounding boards.
“From what I have seen with working alongside Anthony is that he is a real trailblazer for young people in politics and has inspired other young people to get involved not only in politics but in their community,” said De La Rosa who initially appointed Rocha to the Youth Advisory Commission.
John “Tony” Villegas the councilmember for District 6 appointed Rocha to the library and community services commission in May. “He’s one of these young people who want to get involved who is interested in local government and improving Salinas, and he gives a better perspective of someone in that age group,” Villegas said. City Councilmember Steve McShane said he is impressed with Rocha’s attendance record for Council, which totals to nearly 15 meetings to date. McShane said: “He often jumps in and offers his opinion on issues and Anthony is one of about three young people that attend City Council meetings on a regular basis. This is actually more than I've seen in the seven years that I have served on City Council.”
Late last year, Rocha also applied to the county’s mental health commission after he saw County Supervisor Jane Parker’s call for applications via Facebook. The issue hits home since he has an uncle that is schizophrenic and cousins who are autistic.
In April, the city of Salinas awarded him the City of Champions Award, which recognizes outstanding members of the community.
Come fall Rocha will enroll at Hartnell College where he plans to major in political science, and eventually complete his studies at Californa State University, Monterey Bay. He is keen on working for city or county government or at a nonprofit that works with the government. “I do have political aspirations but I’m in no rush to achieve them,” he smiled. “It is whenever I feel the time is right.” Even though he is aware of the city’s many problems including gang violence, he said Salinas is home. “I want to stay here and work hard to make sure more good things happen,” he said.
Indeed the sky is the limit.