As the executive director of Center for Social Advocates (CSA), Estela de los Rios cares about the well-being of the community. She also has a strong sense of justice, which she developed at an early age. As a human rights activist, she strives to make the world a better place and doesn’t want others to feel the pain of discrimination, something she herself has faced.
Growing up in rural Brawley, Calif., she went to a mostly white elementary school where she was taunted for being Mexican. Recalling her past still brings tears to her eyes as she explained how the taunting made her feel like she didn’t belong and that she was nothing as a Mexican.
Then in the 10th Grade, she had an epiphany while studying about Rosa Parks. She realized that like Parks, she had to do something to make change happen. Both these incidents shaped her into the person she is today: Someone who fights passionately for the rights of others and can make a difference in other people’s lives through her work.
CSA is a place where people can come and voice their concerns. It’s made up of six agencies that provide community services to East County, including fair housing, immigrant and refugee rights, civic engagement, hate crimes, and human trafficking. It’s a place that, in her words, “Embraces newcomers and community.”
De los Rios was born in Tepic, Nayarit. When she was 5, she moved to Yuma, Ariz., with her mom, who worked as a housekeeper there. They later moved to Brawley. She finished high school in Brawley, and then enrolled in Imperial Valley College to study psychology. She later switched to sociology because she felt she could do more for society with that degree. She went on to graduate from San Diego State University.
After college, she first worked in Imperial County as a supervisor in the probation department in El Centro. She married and she and her husband moved to San Jose. While living there, she worked for the Santa Clara Housing Authority. However, her marriage was troubled and they got divorced. She moved to San Diego/El Cajon where she met her second husband and the father of her three children, all girls. Her second husband worked in El Cajon as a cabinet maker. They stayed together until his death in 2006. Today de los Rios lives in El Cajon with her children and grandchildren nearby. Since most of her time is spent working at CSA, the organization is really like her second home.
When she first arrived in El Cajon, she worked as a legal assistant with an attorney whose specialty was inmates’ rights. She also began to volunteer at Heartland Human Relations and Fair Housing which later became CSA. Volunteering led to a part-time position, which later transitioned to full-time as a fair housing counselor and human rights director.
In the 1980s, she dealt with all the issues Latinos faced in the East County when the demographics were more white and racism more overt. At that point, even de los Rios herself thought about moving, especially after her daughter faced verbal abuse and prejudice in high school. However, they stayed put and this strengthened her resolve to fight even more for human rights and against hate.
Her first case as a fair housing counselor was with a Mexican family whose new landlord wanted them to move after he took over from their previous landlord. De los Rios helped them by gathering evidence, and they won their case in court and were compensated by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, a government agency that works with HUD.
Her involvement in this success bid for justice made her feel proud, and de los Rios wanted to do more to help others in similar situations, — especially as demographics were changing and more Latinos were moving to El Cajon. Together with Pedro Rios, they began to teach human rights classes. Her agency also started doing more advocacy for all immigrants as many Middle Easterners began moving to El Cajon, especially from Iraq.
Today as executive director of CSA, de los Rios has realized that collaborating with other agencies is a powerful tool to fight for the rights of others and she also works closely with License to Freedom, an advocacy group for Middle Easterners, among others. She is well known and respected. In fact, she has been asked to run as a council woman for El Cajon in 2020 — and she has said yes.
Although close to the age when most people retire, de los Rios is still going full steam. She believes it’s important to continue her work, especially in today’s world, and feels she needs to take a leadership position to ensure the ongoing animosity against immigrants and refugees ceases. She wants to shift the negative into positive and change the rhetoric in the communities in East County and San Diego.