I’m in a group study room on Davidson’s fourth floor. Before me sits a friend I’ve known since freshman year. He is dressed in jeans, a UCSB sweatshirt and the same vans that can be found on almost every student’s feet. On his head rests a black beanie with the word “Compton” emblazoned across the front. His brimming backpack rests against his chair with heavy books and papers clearly taking their toll on the fabric. Stout, with a dark cinnamon complexion, there is a deepness in his gaze that communicates beyond his words. He leans forward on the table, hands patiently folded together as he looks me in the eyes.
“My full name is Oscar Uriel Escobar.”
He speaks Spanish and English. His face can be serious, but his laugh is full and infectious. He knows people all over campus, and during our interview we were interrupted at least five times by friends passing by wanting to say hello. Each time he obliged them with a warm smile and salutation.
Someone even gave us homemade banana bread.
I’m talking with Oscar because I want to know how the kid I met on the floor of my dorm the first day of school blossomed into the passionate activist he is today. As an undocumented immigrant to the United States, Oscar lived out a common narrative of the modern American dream with uncommon finesse. Now a political science major in his fourth year, Oscar spent the majority of his time in college learning to navigate the halls of power at UCSB and beyond. Both inside and outside of the classroom Oscar has dedicated himself to understanding community-based activism, from returning to his childhood home of Compton to help run a high school mentorship program, to leading Improving Dreams, Equality, Access, and Success (I.D.E.A.S.) at UCSB, a resource and support group for undocumented students.
At his core Oscar is many things: dreamer, scholar, fighter, leader. He stands up for the people he believes in and the things he knows to be right with a grace and veracity beyond his years.
Behind his work on behalf of his community is a story of struggle, discovery and understanding which has shaped Oscar into a young man uniquely suited to tackle many of the problems facing the UCSB campus and beyond.
FROM MEXICO TO COMPTON, CA
Oscar’s story is deeply rooted in the narratives of his parents’ lives in Acapulco, Mexico. In 1995 he was born to a mother and father who worried about the future they could provide for their child. Though Acapulco is a bustling cultural mecca on Mexico’s stunning southern coast, Oscar’s parents felt little of the prosperity brought into the city from its booming tourism industry. They lived just outside of the town in a more rural area far removed from the economic zones of the city; one of Oscar’s earliest memories is traveling around the gorgeous, forest-laden hills with his mother.
Due to this lack of economic and educational opportunities, Oscar’s father made the difficult decision to travel to the U.S in hopes of establishing a stable home for his new family in the land of opportunity. There was a ton of risk involved, but in the end it was worth taking the chance to provide a better life for their son. Until the age of five Oscar did not know his father beyond the pictures his mother often showed him. When the call eventually came for him and his mother to join his father in Compton, Calif. Oscar recalls not believing the man they were reunited with was actually his dad.
Despite the tribulations and dangers of migrating into the U.S. without papers, Oscar and his family eventually did find their new home in Compton. As undocumented immigrants in the heart of Southern California, however, the fight for the brighter future Oscar’s parents imagined was far from over.
Adjusting to this new life required Oscar to overcome many obstacles. It was precisely from these challenges, however, that Oscar began to understand the power of community in tackling them. When his mother enrolled him in summer school he spoke no English whatsoever, but he quickly found that his classmates were more than willing to accept him.
“Everyone was really nice. I don’t remember ever being picked on because I was Mexican or anything like that. Everyone wanted to help me.”
Oscar recalls one African-American student in particular who went out of his way to help Oscar understand basic phrases in English. Oscar credits this experience with pushing him to learn how to succeed in the classroom and make friends. Before he knew it, Oscar was picking up more and more English by the day, and it wasn’t long before he could chop it up with his English-speaking friends just as easily as he could with his Spanish-speaking ones.
Language barriers aside, there were still large roadblocks making it difficult for Oscar to thrive. While it was true that better educational opportunities existed for Oscar in the United States than in Mexico, the Compton public school system he enrolled in was far from perfect. In many ways, Compton Unified exhibited lots of the same symptoms plaguing thousands of inner-city school systems across the country: lack of funding, high turnover rates of teachers, few college preparatory classes and low graduation rates, among many others.
Determined to make the most of the opportunity her family had worked so hard for, Oscar’s mother switched him to nearby Lynwood Unified schools, though he acknowledges that system was only “marginally” better than Compton. Here Oscar would make his way through middle and high school, the first in his family to receive formal education in the U.S.
The weight of this fact was never lost on Oscar. He worked incredibly hard to be successful in school. As a naturally intelligent student, Oscar learned to excel throughout his time in classrooms. Year in and year out Oscar picked up more interest in academics and continuously built up an ability to think critically. By the end of his senior year of high school, not only had Oscar mastered the language of his new country, he had also worked his way through its imperfect public school system to earn a spot at UCSB, one of the country’s top public universities. For any student this is an achievement, but for Oscar it was so much more.
In his last semester of high school, Oscar ran into the same kid who helped him out in summer school over 10 years before. For both young men it was an enormous source of pride that Oscar was to attend a top college. As he told me this story I could feel the immense significance this moment had on Oscar. It reveals a lot about the way he views himself: the culmination of a family’s ambitions and a diverse community of people who made him what he is.
EXPERIENCE INTO ACTION
Life in Santa Barbara was sunshine and excitement for Oscar. During his first year at UCSB he focused almost exclusively on academics. Many people told him the transition from high school to college would be difficult, especially for someone coming from a place like Compton. In reality he didn’t have much of an idea what to expect. Soon, however, Oscar was thriving in his new classes, getting good grades and impressing teachers left and right. He was excelling in college the same way he did in high school. Similarly, Oscar turned to his peers to learn about his new world, joining Associated Students in the hope of building a network of well-connected students.
On the A.S. Committee on Committees he met countless people involved in affairs all over campus. A.S. turned out to be one of the best things that happened to Oscar. Now the chair of that same committee, he says it allowed him to use the folks around him to make sense of the unsettling experience of freshman year.
He pitched it to me the same way he pitches it to incoming freshman looking to get involved: “Coming into UCSB is sort of like coming into a dark room. You don’t know where everything is at: you bump into stuff, you get lost, you know what I mean? But what A.S. is a flashlight in that dark room. It lets you see things a little bit more clearly, it gives you a bigger picture of the campus and the many resources that it has.”
The passion for community building lit up during Oscar’s first year. That summer he returned to Compton where he volunteered as a college counselor for high school students looking to follow in his footsteps and attend university. It was the first of many opportunities Oscar would seek out to improve the lives of the people around him.
At the same time that he was adjusting to his new identity as a college student in his freshman year, Oscar was also grappling with a new identity as an undocumented immigrant. One of the greatest ironies about Oscar’s achievements in high school was that he didn’t even realize what he was forced to overcome until he arrived in college. Applying for the FAFSA grant was the first time he ever learned he was undocumented. Up until that point his parents had never mentioned it. “I just felt like any other kid,” Oscar says, “it just never even came up.”
Once the truth came out, Oscar grappled with his new-found identity in the same way he learned to face other problems: by immersing himself in community. Reading up on the policies surrounding his status was not enough, and during his second year Oscar starting attending meetings for I.D.E.A.S., UCSB’s only support group for undocumented students. There he engaged with other students in his position with the intent of understanding what these people were actually doing to help improve conditions in their community. He learned quickly that it was quite a lot.
Oscar believes signing up with this group was what made him realize the power of activism. Seeing the energy of the older students in the group battling for change inspired Oscar to imagine himself being able to make a difference. When I.D.E.A.S. attended a UC-wide summit on undocumented students and protested against Janet Napolitano’s speech, Oscar says a switch was flipped in his mind:
“That’s when I started to materialize the effect of standing up and speaking truth to power. All these people who shared my identity made her stop talking and listen to what we had to say. That’s where I learned a lot of my passion. Their passion fed my growing passion. From there it was a transformation from a member of this particular identity to an activist for it.”
Over the next two years this passion would continue to develop as Oscar kept advocating with I.D.E.A.S. on behalf of undocumented students. He helped organize new members and learned how to pressure the school into keeping its promises when it came to providing resources. A hundred meetings after the first one he attended, Oscar had become a master negotiator and patient conversationalist. I.D.E.A.S. taught him the good that can come from open dialogue being translated into deliberate action.
In class, Oscar pushed himself to link his curriculum to the things he was accomplishing in his advocacy, studying not just the laws, but more importantly, the ways in which these laws are crafted, discussed and enforced. In our conversation, Oscar brilliantly paralleled a complicated metaphor for power dynamics, known as “Hobbes’ Choice,” that he learned in one of his political science classes with the ways in which student groups frame issues to the powers that be on UC campuses. It should have been over my head, but he got me to understand. When I hinted that it appeared activism might give him a leg up in lecture halls, he laughed and said, “when I go to classes and they talk about that stuff, I’m like, ‘Bruh. I did that.’”
THE POWER OF CONVERSATION
In learning all about the amazing things Oscar has accomplished during his time at UCSB, what struck me most was not what he did, but how he was doing it.
At one point Oscar described to me a time when I.D.E.A.S. protested the inclusion of Customs and Border Protection at a career fair hosted by the school. He mentioned that several members of the College Republicans club were instigating at the booth and causing a bit of a controversial scene. Instead of being blindly upset at the College Republicans for their opposing viewpoints, Oscar told me he went and joined their Facebook group in order to learn more about them.
At first he simply read the posts they wrote, but eventually he actively participated, commenting on ideas and trying to truly get to the bottom of their arguments. Though some members attacked with nasty personal remarks, Oscar said most of the members were happy to dialogue civilly on important issues with him. He even said he ended up becoming close personal friends with many of those students, including their president.
“For a lot of them this was the first time they really interacted or engaged with people they just talked about. There’s a difference between talking about someone, talking about a group of people, and talking to someone from that group. That really opened my eyes.”
This concept of getting sometimes competing groups to recognize the common humanity of their perceived opponents is central to Oscar’s activist strategy. The biggest problem he consistently comes up against in all of his work is people not wanting to acknowledge that any other group containing different opinions than theirs could possibly have valuable input to a conversation. He calls this concept “faux polarization,” a problem that obviously extends well beyond the confines of the university. Even among activist circles he advocates for, Oscar realizes the problems that arise when folks believe there is no valid alternative to their perspective:
“There’s a militant view today that there’s no way anything other than my perspective is the truth; we just can’t be wrong. I feel that that’s a very problematic mentality to have: that you can’t be wrong, that you hold the moral supremacy over all issues. That’s the kind of mentality that I want to fight against.”
When a community faces a crisis, Oscar believes the best solutions will stem from open discussion; all-inclusive, non-judgmental assessments of the true feelings of actual people who make up that community. Actually coming face to face with those you disagree with forces people to recognize that while you might disagree, you cannot abstract another person’s right to their own opinion.
During the 2016 election campaign when pro-Trump chalk messages scrawled around campus began stirring controversy, Oscar may have been outraged due to the rhetoric about Mexican immigrants supposed Trump supporters were using. But instead of responding with aggression, Oscar helped to organize a school-wide town hall meeting to discuss the feelings surrounding it. From that meeting came the sharing of stories, opinions, and personal life experiences which, once expressed, seem to palpably calm the entire campus.
This is simply the kind of guy Oscar is. Often times he sits down to discuss problems with people who oppose him at every possible level. There is something about his smile and easygoing intellectualism makes you feel comfortable talking about even the most controversial issues. He’s deliberate and thoughtful, a good listener with a subtle sense of humor. Even when Oscar disagrees with you, he understands the power of true and honest dialogue to guide both parties toward a place of mutual understanding.
From Mexico to Compton to UCSB, Oscar has learned to grow from the best of his surroundings. As a consummate gentleman and passionate activist he knows just what it takes to solve problems by bringing people together. He plans to continue to advocate for more spaces in which students can engage in open dialogue on campus. Post-graduation he would like to return to Compton to work with local organizers to create a long-term after school center at which local college graduates can give back to younger students who seek to attend college.
In the meantime, he wants to keep standing up to help those on campus without a voice find one. For those who already have one, Oscar will continue to make sure both groups can come together to sing in harmony.
When I asked him how he learned to be so diplomatic in trying to reach common ground, he just shrugged and smiled: “People today are not OK with being wrong. I’m OK with being wrong. I want to be wrong.”