Elena Herrada was born in 1957, on the east side of Detroit, in a closeknit, multiracial and multiethnic neighborhood. “We grew up in a community that was very stable where hardly anyone ever moved, and we went to school with the same people every day, and a lot of times also at Mass on Sundays…So, we saw people six days a week.” The neighborhood had a special feeling. “It was really small town living in Detroit.”
Most social life for the Herradas centered around the Catholic church, but life was not completely idyllic. Don Lobsinger, leader of a white supremacist group called Breakthrough, lived on the same block. Lobsinger would picket the Herrada house and throw tomatoes. “We were really ordinary in most ways except that we were the target of hatred because of some of my mom’s activities, which were like really basic church kinds of things.”
Elena was aware of issues of race from an early age. She jokes that she was “hiding under the bed” during the 1967 Rebellion. On a more serious note, she saw how racism and white flight tore her tightknit neighborhood apart. “Whiteness affected everything. It was something that really informed my life in the early age, watching how people would move saying that the property values went down.” But the impact of racism is not limited to property. “So, the way that you see color impacts real estate value which then informs everything from education to health to everything to transportation. It’s something that you can’t separate from anything. Race rules everything.”
The Herrada family came from deep working-class roots and a tradition of labor activism. Elena’s paternal grandfather came to Detroit in 1920 to work at Ford. In a woefully unknown episode in US history, he and his entire family were forcibly repatriated to Mexico in 1930. Elena would go on, in collaboration with Julio Cesar Guerrero, to co-produce the documentary “Los Repatriados: Exiles from the Promised Land,” based on oral history interviews about the forced repatriation of Mexicans from Detroit during the Great Depression. Her Grandfather returned to Detroit in 1932 to work at Chrysler, where he would spend the next 45-years before retiring.
Elena’s father also worked at Chrysler, where he was the strike captain of his local union. “We really grew up on picket lines…we went to their picket lines every day, brought food.” But Elena also witnessed the decline of the labor movement with Reagan era attacks on unions during the PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) strike. “My grandmother, my mother’s mother, asked if I would take her to the picket line at the airport. She was really old. And, I took her to the picket line, and there was nobody there, and they weren’t picketing. There was no one. There were no pickets there, and we had taken food and everything, and she was like, ‘What the hell? What the hell? How are you gonna have a picket line with no picketers?’ I mention that because that was really a turning point in labor where there was a retrenchment and retreat.”
Elena’s activism was not limited to labor. Growing up with the liberation theology of the Catholic church, her activism “led into the work around Central America and wars against El Salvador and the different places around the world the U.S was attacking. So, our work was, you know, local and national and international in scope.” She was active in supporting the United Farm Workers boycotts of grapes and lettuce in the 1960s-70s. “César Chávez used to stay at my house in the years there was a boycott office in Detroit…And, César I remember saying, ‘No strikes without strikers, and that really resonated” after the experience of the PATCO strike.
While most of Elena’s political education came from family and the streets, she also attended Wayne State University, where she became involved with activism and Chicano-Boricua Studies. She graduated in 1980 with majors in Criminal Justice and Chicano-Boricua Studies and was part of a significant generation of Latina leaders graduating from Wayne State at that time.
Elena has always viewed herself as a bridge builder between Latino and Black communities in Detroit. “So there is an absolute anti-Black-baked-in-racism in every European country, in every Latin American country and every Central American country…and, that was something that I always found very troubling, and it’s the solidarity work that I’ve attempted to do. All of my life has been that, Black-brown solidarity.”
Her activism around issues of education began as a parent. “I was a parent going to school board meetings for years and years, and I was always raging on the board.” She had children, twins, in DPS during the first state takeover of the school system in 1999. She recalls one of her daughters saying: “I feel like they’re stealing our lives.’ That’s what my daughter said about school during the takeover, when there were no teachers and there were no books.”
Elena’s road from activism to politics was circuitous and began with a basic desire to get the Latino community more engaged in the local issues that impacted their lives. In the 1990s, she co-founded the Committee for the Political Resurrection of Detroit to revive the city’s radical traditions and push for a progressive political agenda. In 2009, she ran for the City Charter Commission with goals of improving government transparency and accountability and putting more power in the hands of the people. “I won the primary, which is the first time any Latino won city-wide anything.” While winning the primary, she did not win in the general election.
Her campaign, however, did win her greater recognition in the political arena. In 2010, DPS was under Emergency Management, but its Board retained the ability to appoint replacement members. After the DPS Board Chair and representative of District 2 had to stepdown, Elena was asked to apply for the position and was appointed to the Board as a replacement member. She served out the remainder of that term and would go on to win two of her own elected terms, serving 7 years on the School Board.
With DPS under the control of a state-imposed Emergency Manager, the democratically elected school board resisted efforts to marginalize it. Seven of the eleven members began holding extra board meetings to strategize against the actions of the Emergency Manager. This body became known as the DPS Board in Exile.
“There was a big effort to make sure the school board had no visibility and no power.” Some of the worst offenders were non-profit companies, who no longer had to deal with the elected Board. The non-profits “were telling families not to call the board, that the board has no authority, and basically discrediting us, and you couldn’t get anything done if you went to the board. You should go to them [the non-profits]…so did our state representatives and council members. I can’t imagine being an elected official and saying that another elected official should have no authority.”
The Board in Exile did its best to fight emergency management. “We went to City Council many times and asked them not to vote for the Consent Agreement. We asked them to oppose anything that the Emergency Manager brought because we believed that we would have our day in court one day and that we could say, ‘We did not agree to close these schools, and we didn’t agree to gut the curriculum of the African-centered curriculum that had been there which made the scores go up exponentially.’”
Elena shares her first-hand knowledge on the gutting of the Detroit Public School system’s curriculum, budget, and buildings, the casting of students into over-crowded classrooms with under-qualified Teach for America teachers in dangerous buildings in disrepair. But, her struggles on the School Board were reflective of a lifetime of front-line activism. “It’s important to have resistance to injustice that’s consistent, that’s unwavering,” she reflected.
Elena remains optimistic about Detroit’s future because of her faith in Detroit youth. ”I think the younger people are creative, and it’s going to be something completely different for them. And, I’m down with just backing them, whatever it is that they want.”
Elena Herrada, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, March 22, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.