Erika Sanchez a skilled community development practitioner currently serving as College & Career Manager at KidWorks. Equipped with a bachelor's in Sociology and Biblical studies from Biola University and a Masters in Transformational Urban Leadership (MATUL) from Azusa Pacific University, Erika spent three formative years in the Philippines living in slum communities and launching faith rooted programs that equip and empower urban poor youth to critically address issues of urban poverty, environmental justice, land rights, health, and education in their community. Experienced in the faith community, grass-root movements and community organizing. She is fluent in English, Spanish and Tagalog.
You can find Dr. Jonathan Calvillo's book The Saints of Santa Ana: Faith and Ethnicity in a Mexican Majority City wherever books are sold.
Music by @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Patrick Reyes: Hey, what's going on. It's Pat here. Today we have one of my good friends, Erica Sanchez, who is out in Southern California, has been to a bunch of FTE events and what you'll hear in her story - which I just love - it's both a conversation about how you take this vocational journey home to the space that raises you, that loves you, how do you give back and serve in that community - in Santa Ana for her - and how do you venture out? Explore! She does that as well so I am so excited and grateful that Erica Sanchez has decided to join us.
All right, Erica, it is so good to see you, to see the California sunshine coming through this screen. How are you doing?
Erika Sanchez: I'm doing good. Thank you so much for having me.
Patrick: Now your name was dropped through dear friends and mutual friends and they've told me a little about your story. We've had a chance to talk a little bit about it. I know what you're up to now cause you just started a new job, which is really exciting, but if you can, take me back to the beginning before all of this adult life. Tell me about little Erika.
Erika Sanchez: So I was born and raised in Southern California in Santa Ana - the heart of Orange County, and my parents moved here when they were really young. They had just gotten married and they were both kind of the younger siblings of big families. So their older siblings had kind of settled here in Santa Ana. So when they arrived, this became the hub and just so happened that the neighborhood they chose, it was literally one street.
And at the end of the street was my elementary school, at the other end was the Catholic Church, and behind that was a big park. And we had family members all throughout that street. It was apartment complexes. In my childhood I felt like I never left that area. We didn't have to leave, everybody there spoke Spanish and all the neighbors were also immigrants and it felt so safe. I loved growing up there, playing soccer in the courtyard and my gosh breaking windows when we would play soccer, because there was just no place to play. but it just so happened that the very courtyard where we lived, there were always groups coming by doing, evangelism or VBS.
And, I mean, I didn't know those terms then, but what really captivated me was a group that would just play games in the courtyard. My mom, because she was a youngest sibling, she would take care of all my cousins,so that her older sisters would go work. She would just send all of us to these VBS programs in the courtyard and she could watch us from the window.
It just so happened that a lot of the people that were coming, they actually looked like us. A lot of them are from Biola, some were from APU and I really trusted this space because this was my home. They taught us a lot about God in that context.
And then as I got older, just started to notice, maybe my neighborhood isn't safe, especially during daylight savings time or whenever it would get dark really early. It was really dangerous. I felt just that tension and that neighborhood, the early nineties, it was actually predominantly African-American and as immigrants started settling in, it became really brown.
And so in the early nineties, I just remember that tension. There was a huge African-American church in the block behind us. And so I just remember that the violence that I saw was a lot of that tension. It was really interesting as a young kid because in my little courtyard, learning about God, I felt the safest and I had the most fun.
And then I also have these like separate memories of, oh, it was really dangerous. And there was also a lot of drug violence and drugs production and consumption going on around me. And so that's kind of the two worlds I was living in.
We moved a little bit around, but we would always come back to that street. By the time we came back again, they had opened a tutoring center. I think I was in second grade and I realized, oh, like, I don't really know English. I don't really understand the teacher. And just to be in that context of like, oh, I don't understand. So I started going to tutoring and I just immediately fell in love with learning and reading.
This tutoring center, that was my little world. And so as a kid, I kind of absorbed all of it and it became this safe haven and [I] was introduced to reading and immediately changed my world. I could be transported anywhere and have this creative imagination. And the fun part was growing up with my, sister and my best friend who lived in the apartment upstairs from us.
It really felt like it was the three of us against the world, that wasn't always so pretty, where there was a lot of violence and we were exposed to so much so young. And we would process a lot together which is so funny because now I think about it, I'm like, Spanish was my language to communicate with adults - My parents, family figures, but English was kind of like my personal language to communicate with my sister. Not like in secret, but more in like code. Like if I was feeling something and I didn't want the room to know, I knew I could speak in English so only we could understand each other.
It was through this program, that's now called KidWorks that I was able to meet a lot of young people. I want to say, like [the] majority of people that were coming through were people that looked like me, that were in higher education. Someone that really marked my life, her name is Gabby and she was from the neighborhood.
I knew her and I knew her family. She was going to college when I met her. I think she was 19, I was just a little kid. So essentially she was the staff for this tutoring center, but I would see her get home from college. Just to see her pursuing her dreams and being from the community. I hadn't seen anything like that. And eventually she became a, an elementary school teacher. She's still a teacher now. She works out in LA. It was through her that I realized I don't have to stay here. I can have big dreams too, and I can pursue those big things and not be afraid.
Patrick: I mean, as you think about this context, I wanna zoom out a little bit. I mean, Santa Anna is in Orange County, which is a pretty conservative white county in California, it's the only one in California that's really like that when you zoom out. You're talking about education in the nineties, so this is on the backend of the Rodney King riots. You have all these propositions that are literally anti-Spanish in education systems that didn't even get overturned till the mid 2010s - late 2010s. So as you're thinking about this, pursuing big dreams in this context where you have this safe haven with KidWorks and people like Gabby in your life, what are those big dreams? Like what are you imagining and what do you do to pursue them, within this larger kind of context?
Erika Sanchez: I look back on my life and I'm thankful for so many little miracles and sometimes I get angry because I ask God why did it have to be a miracle? Why did you have to move so hard for me to dream this big or for me to pursue these big things?
So in education, I was never part of the GATE program (gifted and talented education). And I never tested out of, I don't remember the name now, but a test you had to take to say that you were English proficient. And I remember being in eighth grade and I still didn't pass. In eighth grade, KidWorks established a scholarship to a private high school in the area and they asked me to be the first scholar.
I actually went to a private high school. It was my introduction to a primarily white institution and an introduction into Orange County culture. I was 13 years old coming, again from this neighborhood that I didn't ever leave with people that looked like me, that talk like me, lived life like me. And so it was a very stark difference that I had to learn to navigate. I always joke, like I never tested out of being an English learner - like I left the system. That's why I get angry because I say it didn't have to be that big because in the system I would have gotten lost and here I was given this chance.
And in high school, having to process, well my peers are not getting this opportunity -that people around me are falling through the cracks because the cracks are so wide. And just being really critical at a really young age. And again, processing a lot with my sister in our secret English language at home.
I feel like I was given this life jacket in a space that didn't require me to sink, that actually gave me flat ground to step on, to dry off and actually explore what was around me. And I had classmates that were very competitive in learning and I had never been around that environment. And I was really quick, right? I loved learning. I hadn't had access to learning. I had been in classrooms where like class management was the big deal, like just sitting down or fights breaking out or kids smoking weed around me. And so going to this other context, I was like, they're sitting down, they're actually doing their homework.
And it was this invitation to really go all in. And I did! When I went in, I was in all the lower level classes and by the time I graduated, yeah, I just took the challenge and took a lot of AP classes and really challenged myself. But then I was always, always connected to KidWorks and around other youth and my friends who went to such different schools and we always had conversations. And I just remember being really young and doing all this research on how do public schools get funded? And what are the gaps between socio-economic status?
Again, at 13, I was already looking for these concepts about systems and had a, you know, very aggressive introduction into all of it. But once I started learning more about theory and having definitions, I think really helped me feel like, oh, this isn't in my head. I'm not crazy. This is real and it's impacting real lives. It's impacting my friends and people that I love.
Patrick Reyes: As you imagine what next steps are to address this - the many education gaps, the sites you're seeing around the community you love, that's raised you, this loving you into being, what do you, what do you do next? What do you do after high school?
Erika Sanchez: Again, I was so young and already asking so many questions. And so I was asking these questions from God, you know, also asking him why is it like this? We grew up Catholic and in high school it I was getting exposed to religion class and just more theological. It was my introduction, right, to just biblical studies. I started to ask more questions and I just had this hunger that I wasn't satisfied. And it just so happened that at KidWorks they had started a church and they had this very house church vibe.
And the pastor at the time, Dr. Jonathan Calvillo and his wife and his family. And it was this a group of, again, people that looked like me that loved my community, that were serving in the community that were living in the community, just gathering.
I do just want to shout out Jonathan's book, The Saints of Santa Ana: Faith and Ethnicity in the Mexican Majority City, because he did his research while he was pastoring my church and as I was being formed in my faith. And I just want to say, what a gift that he was able to capture a moment in time while I was there.
And I told him it was the first time seeing my name in print. And so he wrote me a note saying that it won't be the last time. He's always encouraging me to step into new spaces and learn new things. I just wanted to share that he was able to capture a lot of my story in a more like broader sense of the word and where I come from. That work is so important.
But when I joined the church I was given immediate permission to ask questions and to learn from them. And yes, I was living life with them like day to day, but this just felt so intimate. I was exposed to so many leadership opportunities. The youth around me, we were part of this I want to say like intense discipleship lifestyle, because we were seeing incarnational ministry before us.
And it was done in such a way that was transformative. And we were invited to be leaders in the community and we felt like we can change everything and anything we wanted to. And so I remember being in high school and hearing God's voice very clearly.
Because I was in this context of education and being a first-generation student and I kept getting this message from my parents, oh, you're going to go to school, you're going to get a good job when you graduate, and you're going to buy us a house. That was always the three steps of success.
And I remember being part of this group and learning more about God and his heart. And my mom picked me up after one youth night and we were walking home and it was pretty dark. And I just remember asking her, Hey, is it okay if when I grow up, I'm not rich? She was just like, I don't know, what do you mean?
Is it okay if I don't follow your three steps? I feel like God…he's really calling me and I feel like If I follow him, then I can't be rich. That won't be my priority anymore. I was in high school and just had this deep understanding.
And his call for me was that there are others like you that I want you to find. And at that time, I didn't know what that was gonna mean, but after Biola, I found a program that was going to do international, community development. And the title of it is, Transformational Urban Leadership.
The focus of it was to find vehicles of transformation in slum communities. I thought, this is it. This is what God was telling me about in high school. It was just this idea of like, there are others like you that, no one sees that I've called very clearly, I want you to see them.
And I ended up in the Philippines of all places, to do this master's program, but it was really this invitation from God to go see those he had called and it was life-changing.
The community I ended up living in, in the Philippines, reminded me of my childhood home. The place I ended up working was also a learning center, setting up learning centers, very similar to KidWorks. The youth I was working with reminded me so much of the youth I was around at KidWorks and there was that same voice from God saying, I've also called them to do big things.
I never took on the title of missionary because it just felt so dirty. And it just felt so distant from who I was. I really thought of myself as I'm just here to learn from you because God called you too. So how fun is it for us to get to do stuff together? We really were just creating projects and like just reading the Bible and teaching the Bible. And it was so collaborative and it was in a different culture so there was a lot I had to learn. But I also felt that because I came from where I came from, I was able to really immerse and be. And there wasn't this added layer of colonialism or this hurt.
I just felt like, God could really use me here in such a raw way. I still carry that with me. And that's informed my role now and who I am now because I want to teach youth here, like, God can use you, all of you. Just because you think you came from this neighborhood and the world dismisses you, or your experiences or you're hurt, it's actually like a super power. Patrick Reyes: After you get back from the Philippines, I am curious because one of the things I appreciate so much is that yeah, you're connected to this global story, but you returned to KidWorks. So tell me about that transition. You connected globally to do this work and you’re called back to that neighborhood, that little safe space that grew up and formed you.
Erika Sanchez: I've actually had quite a lot of time to reflect on this, especially now as I've transitioned out. I had a hard time coming home. I wanted to be in the Philippines for a lifetime and I would have, but just systemically it wasn't sustainable for me.
I wasn't connected to a denomination or a specific church that was funding my work. And I had student loans - that was such a big burden for me. And then at the same time, 2016 happened. And at this point, I'm in the Philippines, my sister is in Mexico City - she was a Fulbright scholar and so she was in Mexico City teaching.
And I think we were both on Skype, like waiting for election results, just feeling this heaviness of, we have undocumented immigrant parents at home. We just felt this burden of, okay, we have to go home because we don't know what the next four years will look like.
There was this immediate fear. I remember processing it with my community in the Philippines. You know, I had shared the immigrant story with them and they were starting to understand it and concepts about it. And then when I shared about the election, they mourned with me. It was this mourning because I had to leave.
And so that transition back was really difficult. I felt like America didn't want me and I didn't want America. And so it was this process of relearning American adult practices and lifestyle skills. And I felt really lost and I didn't know all of this. It was that shock, that reverse culture shock.
But I also know that at KidWorks, they had been growing and I just visited one day and they shared their vision for growing this youth program. And they had such a big facility now to really be that safe haven. And they were occupying space. And I remember sharing with the executive director, like this concept of taking up space. Like there is something about it that just marks that there's safety and that people can grow and I just felt really called at that time.
When I started, at KidWorks, it was more for my healing. And it was more for me to reacclimate and to be in a space that knew me and that loved me. They were so proud of me to come back and have my masters and to be educated and to now encourage their kids to pursue their purpose. It was just this immediate trust that I was like, I feel like I don't deserve this, and then realizing like I have 20 years of knowledge just stored in me and I can offer this up without it being difficult.
Honestly it wasn't until I read The Purpose Gap that I felt my ears pop. For four years I had been praying like, God, what are you doing? Why am I here? Is there something that's next? The whole time it was a lot of silence. And now I know it was just a lot of time to heal and rest. But when I read The Purpose Gap, I think it was in the first few pages, I immediately cried because I knew God's about to talk. And as I was reading, God just took that time to really speak with me. And for him to, affirm that yeah, like the big assignment is still the same - to find others like me that he has called, that others are not seeing and to come alongside them. That's why I really resonate with the work that FTE does because that's my calling too! What an exciting time to be able to do that work.
Patrick Reyes: Erika you've transitioned away from KidWorks from this place that formed you, that loves you, that spoke the language, the brown community, and as you're in Biola, how much of your sense of call, purpose, finding meaning in this life, is from the communities, the people, the streets that your family's on, your family, the secret language between you and your sister in English.
You know, like how much is it driven by that community in the Philippines and KidWorks and how much is driven by your relationship, your conversation with God or the divine, or how you imagine God calling you to life, calling you to find meaning and purpose?
Erika Sanchez: I garden a lot and I got that from my dad. He has done landscaping, I think, ever since he was 16 when he first came to the states. When we were living in the apartment complex, there wasn't a lot of green spaces. And in the apartment that we lived, there was this little area, really, really small plot of dirt.
And I remember whenever he had like leftover flowers from whatever project he was working in, he would bring them home and he would make us plant them with him. Even though it was this smallest plot of land, he would have us take out a plant and like put it in and he would always tell us, “water it.”
He was pretty distant throughout my whole childhood, dealt with a lot of alcoholism. So these were the very rare moments where he would take, to like teach us something and to be with us and to also connect us to the earth. And I remember When I was turning eight years old, I asked him, “Can you bring me a tree?” And he brought it and the manager was so upset, like how can you have a tree? And he was like, we could just put it in the courtyard. And every time we will play soccer, it was like one of the goalposts and the community worked around it and adopted it as it's just there.
I remember when we were moving out, I was so sad that we had to leave it. Just in working at KidWorks again, I'm still walking those streets in that community. And I still see it there and it's grown so big and the pot it was originally in, it's like completely shattered because the roots are all out.
I think of myself as that. As God has taken me through different communities, it's like, that's who I am. Like, I'm just going to be here and the community will work around me and I'm going to grow deep roots. As time passes and new people come around, I will always be there.
Because I connect with God so much when I garden, just a lot of the imagery or the words that he's spoken to my life have come through gardening and just spending time working alongside him in the silence. So as I step into this new role at Biola, I carry that with me. And I take with me almost 30 years of experiences of depth and community, not to inform a white or primary white institution or help, them but mostly just to make real space for others like me in spaces like that and to transform them to create real change. I'm excited to do that because at the end of the day, My calling is the same that there are others like me and that I have to find them because others are not seeing them.
There's so much depth to that calling, now I have to make space for them in places where people will see them. Yes, as scary as that is. I also know that there's so many people that have gone ahead of me and there's so many good people now in that work as well.
And again, so grateful for FTE and the work that you all do to help make that happen, not just at one institution, but at many, many places.
Patrick Reyes: Erika I just want to say thank you for coming on the Sound of the Genuine, for finding people. You’re out trying to find folks like you, who are grounded, who busted open that pot, who know their community, the block that their family are on, and yet expanding this reach - living through the fear and anxiety of this moment and also the joy and the hope of what does it mean to find meaning and purpose. I'm just grateful to know you so thank you. Make sure to thank your sister and Gabby and your family from all of us at FTE because this was truly a gift for you to be with us.
Erika Sanchez: Thank you so much.
Patrick Reyes: Hey, I just want to thank you for listening to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine and Erica’s story, in particular. Please, if you've enjoyed this conversation with Erica, subscribe and share this episode with a friend. Listeners drive this show. In order for us to continue to tell these great stories, to listen and sit with people who inspire us, we need to share their stories. So get out there, subscribe and share it with a friend.
I want to thank my wonderful colleagues Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks, who helped put this show together and put it out into the world. And as always @siryalibeats for his music.
Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time on The Sound of the Genuine.