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This is the first in a three-part series.
In 1993, David Alvarez, 13, was studying in a summer science program at UC San Diego, and the day’s lesson was how technology could hurt a community. The school bus, packed with Alvarez and other students, drove the 17 miles from La Jolla to Barrio Logan.
The bus stopped next door to the duplex where Alvarez lived. There stood a chrome plating shop, which often belched exhaust into his and his neighbors’ front yards. No one else on the trip knew this was Alvarez’s home.
Out the bus window, Alvarez saw his mother walking up the street. She had just ended her early morning shift at Burger King and was still wearing her apron and visor. A kid in the bus piped up: “Why would anyone want to live here?” Alvarez, burning with embarrassment, said nothing.
Soon after, Alvarez recalled recently, he attended his first community meeting.
“I just felt like there was something really wrong and nobody was fixing the wrong,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez, now a 33-year-old city councilman representing the neighborhood where he grew up, told this story the night the local Democratic Party endorsed his candidacy for mayor. His message is simple: He’s lived the problems he wants to fix.
On the environment, Alvarez talks about how the fumes from the chrome plating shop gave him asthma. On affordable housing, Alvarez references his senior year in high school, when rising rents forced his family out of their home and he had to live in a friend’s spare room. On public safety, Alvarez discusses his older brothers’ run-ins with gangs. On the economy, he points to the same brothers now working blue-collar jobs along the waterfront.
Alvarez’s life story serves another purpose: to assuage concerns he doesn’t have the experience to lead the nation’s eighth-largest city. He’s spent less than one term in public office and has accomplished little citywide. Even some of his supporters take a deep breath when asked if Alvarez is ready to be mayor.
“I think it’s early for him,” said Brian Trotier, former head of the city’s southeastern redevelopment agency who’s been impressed by Alvarez. “I hope it doesn’t end up hurting him.”
Night after night, Alvarez’s parents, Maria, a fast food worker, and Jose, a janitor, would wait for Alvarez’s older brothers to come home. David, the youngest of six kids, was the only one born in the United States. His parents, sister and four brothers came from a small town outside Guadalajara in southwestern Mexico.
Alvarez’s brothers were in a Logan Heights gang. One night when Alvarez was in elementary school, his brother Jose Luis came home with blood gushing from his leg. He had been shot in a drive-by.
Eventually, police swept up his brothers in gang crackdowns or for minor drug offenses, Alvarez said. He remembers visiting one in Donovan State Prison and having to talk to him through a wall.
His brothers’ experiences, Alvarez said, scared him straight. He saw his brothers lose their freedom. He saw the angst it caused his parents. He grew up fast.
Alvarez blames some of his brothers’ problems – three are now working along the waterfront and the fourth’s a baker – on the lack of opportunity in Barrio Logan when they were young.
“I think it’s part of the unfortunate history of this city that has neglected neighborhoods,” Alvarez said. “When you neglect neighborhoods, you’re neglecting individuals.”
Other experiences led directly to activism. His parents’ landlord died when he was 17, and they couldn’t scrape enough money together to buy a house. Alvarez never had to sleep on the street, but he did move in with a friend for months. He couldn’t believe that his parents, who were working full time, couldn’t afford to live in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. He went to his first City Council meeting to talk about affordable housing soon after.
Alvarez remained in the neighborhood while studying psychology at San Diego State University. In mayoral campaign ads, Alvarez often is referred to as a “social worker,” “after-school teacher” and “community organizer.” All of those titles come from jobs and volunteer work he held in and around college, not as his profession.
Diane Takvorian, head of the Environmental Health Coalition nonprofit, helped organize that UC San Diego bus trip and met Alvarez there for the first time.
In college, Alvarez volunteered to register voters in neighborhoods near Barrio Logan. His boss was Richard Barrera, who now heads the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
“For folks like me and Diane, we’ve got no questions about where his values are,” Barrera said. “We know where he came from and what he’s always been about.”
Aside from a post-college year in Sacramento on a fellowship with the state Legislature, Alvarez has lived and worked in and around Barrio Logan his whole life. He met his wife, Xochitl, in middle school. They went to high school together, too.
A family friend of then-state Sen. Denise Ducheny connected the lawmaker with Alvarez after his Sacramento fellowship. She was looking for someone to run her district office who spoke Spanish, and Ducheny was partial to locals.
Alvarez worked for her for five years before his election to City Council – the only major line on his resume besides his time in office. Ducheny said she watched him learn how government worked while he was with her, but she knew his motivation always came from where he grew up.
“It is the framework that he has,” Ducheny said.
Working with Barrera proved to be a valuable experience. Now, many years later, members of Barrera’s Labor Council have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Alvarez’s mayoral bid.
Next in the series: how David Alvarez performed as a City Councilman and what put him in position to run for mayor.