Sadly, I share the news that in December, The Unity Council lost one of its legendary founders, Alex Zermeño. Alex was one of the founders of the organization in the 1960’s, and later served as our Board Chair from the early 1990’s through 2007. During the 1990’s Alex provided the quintessential leadership that resulted in The Unity Council’s efforts to economically, physically and socially revitalize the Fruitvale embodied in the development of the Fruitvale Transit Village which received national and international acclaim.
His passing is a loss for the greater Latino community, and his life tells a story of Latino/Chicano activism in California and the United States. Born and raised in Salinas, Alex felt a call to service at a young age working with leaders like César Chávez, Saul Alinsky and Herman Gallegos, organizing farmworkers and conducting voter registration drives for the Latino community. In the mid-60’s Alex became involved with the Fruitvale Latino community joining forces in 1964 with Arabella Martinez, Jimmy Delgadillo and Father Oliver Lynch to found the Mexican American Unity Council of Alameda County. That organization began to address the needs of the underserved Latinos in Oakland, and later became the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, or The Unity Council as it is known today.
Alex left the Bay Area to become the Deputy Director of the National Council of la Raza (NCLR) in Phoenix, and served as the interim Executive Director of NCLR when it moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C. He then pursued a graduate degree from Harvard University. He returned to his roots in Northern California, and began working for BART in Oakland. At the request of Arabella Martinez, who had returned to The Unity Council as the CEO in 1990, Alex rejoined the organization as its Board Chair.
Arabella described Alex as the rock and foundation of The Unity Council as it navigated the many roadblocks it faced to realize its dream (Realizando el Sueño) of economically, physically and socially revitalizing the Fruitvale through its many programs, but especially through building the Fruitvale Transit Village.
Alex understood and articulated the comprehensive vision of The Unity Council early on. For him it was never about one program or service, it was always about building community – empowering others to become leaders and help others.
“The Unity Council is an institution,” he is quoted as saying in an East Bay Times article published in 2007. “It supports people and gives them the self-esteem they need to begin organizing and make positive changes in their homes and communities.”
Gilda Gonzales, CEO at the time of his retirement in 2007, remembers Alex: “Alex was one of those people who was called to service at a young age. I believe that the injustices he witnessed growing up lit the fire for his Latino community activism. He had the audacity and determination to demand services for the community, and I was fortunate to have him as our Board President when I became CEO of The Unity Council in 2003. I’m forever grateful for his advice, encouragement, and wisdom as we advanced his vision for the Fruitvale community & beyond.”
His legacy of social equity, inclusion and community is felt at The Unity Council to this day, and persists in our transformative programs and services. Alex left an enduring mark on all that we do.
As the current CEO of The Unity Council, I feel incredibly humbled to have inherited all that Alex, and Arabella, and so many others, built together over many decades. When I learned of his passing, I looked back through old files from his time here, and reached out to past CEOs to share memories. When Alex retired as Board Chair in 2007, a sold-out Gala that celebrated his retirement was covered by local press and a video was created highlighting his incredible contributions to the organization and the Latino community. Echoes of his legacy endure to this day in our programs and services.
Alex was known for asking “What have you done lately?” This wasn’t a question only for others, it was something he constantly asked himself, a mantra that motivated him to continue fighting, no matter the odds, for a brighter future for his community. We are forever indebted to Alex for his tireless actions and contributions to our community. We want to express our gratitude to his wife, Toni, their three daughters, and grandchildren for sharing Alex with us.
Chris Iglesias, Chief Executive Officer