Mother, educator, and social justice advocate. Emily Grijalva holds more titles than one and finds the strength to do so through her community. For Grijalva, it’s the love and trust embedded within Boyle Heights that continuously allows her to nurture both her Guatemalan roots and her students’ identities through her restorative justice work.
Through her involvement with programs such as Las Fotos Project and Boyle Heights Bridge Runners, Grijalva knows firsthand the impact that can be made when underrepresented communities are given the proper resources to succeed. With Angel City set to take the pitch in 2022, Grijalva is the perfect example of the voice we want to have on the field, in the stands, and out in the community.
This is Emily Grijalva.
Angel City FC’s Member Monday series is presented by Birdies.
Q: Can you tell us about where you grew up and how those places and experiences shaped you into the person you are today?
A: I was born in Los Angeles and lived in Echo Park until my family moved to Guatemala. I lived in Quetzaltenango for 8 years and spent most of my childhood there. Once I returned and finished getting my BA and teaching credential from UCLA, I felt it was important to live where I teach. Luckily, I student-taught and was hired in a middle school in Boyle Heights. Once I moved to Boyle Heights, I set my anchor down and have not left. I have lived here for 15 years and my children have grown up in this community. I try to visit Guatemala whenever I can.
Growing up both in Guatemala and Los Angeles has given me a deep appreciation of my cultural identities and the meaning of home. I feel both are my home and I strive to nurture my current community along with other Guatemalan folks living on the Eastside.
Q: What inspired you to work in education?
A: Even though I grew up in Guatemala, I still did not see much of my cultural identity or history reflected in the school’s curriculum and instruction. I was growing up during the peace accords signage after a 36-year civil war, and none of the adults around us, including teachers and parents, had the space to explain what was happening around us. When I attended college, I remember the shame and guilt I felt when the genocide would come up or when I would be asked about Guatemalan writers and artists. I felt such a gap in my K-12th education, which also leads to a sense of erasure and not belonging.
I decided to become an educator so that I could strive to be inclusive of my students’ identities and histories while also uplifting current events and community action. Eventually, I was inspired to join the movement against the school-to-prison pipeline and challenge racist and punitive practices in schooling, and became a restorative justice practitioner. I felt this also allowed me to bridge mental health and a more transformative and healing-centered approach to education. I am proud to be the Restorative Justice and Community School Coordinator for Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School!
Q: What is the most rewarding and/or challenging part about working as a Restorative Justice Coordinator?
A: Schools have really come a long way. Many of us experienced punitive disciplinary actions that shamed us and often made us feel disengaged from school. Even when I started teaching 15 years ago, suspensions and expulsions were high and mostly targeted black and brown youth. I remember the advice I got as a first-year teacher was to be authoritative, not to smile at the students, and see them as manipulative. It was so disheartening since that was definitely not part of my teaching philosophy.
Thankfully, due to youth-lead organizing, we have tremendously decreased suspensions and expulsions, removed criminalizing practices such as “random searches” and constant school police surveillance. Instead of equating students with their behaviors, more and more educators are being trained on restorative justice and pushing for a relationship-focused and more holistic approach. As a Restorative Justice Coordinator, I enjoy being able to get to know our students and figure out what might be the root of the behavior and ways to support students and their families so they can be fully present in schools and feel joy and safe being there.
Q: How does your culture influence your social justice advocacy? What causes or organizations do you support and are you involved with?
A: I think being Central American in a predominantly Mexican/Mexican-American community gives me an awareness of how smaller populations within our school community might feel and how important it is to reach out to these students and families. I am our Gender and Sexuality Alliance sponsor where we work to make sure our community is a safe and brave space for LGBTQ+ youth. I work with the Parent Center to engage our Spanish-speaking immigrant parents so their voice is also captured in decisions made and the programming we offer is meaningful and accessible to them. I co-lead our Students Run LA team to support our students running the marathon for the first time. I am the board chair of Las Fotos Project, a nonprofit organization that mentors teenage girls through photography.
And lastly, my own passions also include running and soccer. I’ve found groups that merge social justice advocacy with these activities and really promote taking up space as women, as people of color, as community organizers in sports culture that often excludes us. I run with the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners and I jump and chant for LAFC with Lxs Tigres del Northend.
Q: Tell us a little bit about Las Fotos Project. How did you get involved with the organization? Why is it important for young women of color to have access to an organization like Las Fotos Project?
A: As a teenager, I was interested in photography. My school offered one class for one semester. Once it finished, I didn’t really have other places to continue learning more. As I got older, I saw that photography, and art in general, tends to be male-dominated and some art classes can be very expensive or inaccessible to most folks.
Several years ago, I was invited to attend a Las Fotos Project exhibit in a gallery in the Arts District and I was completely in awe. I remember in that particular exhibit, there was a double exposure project - one in which young women in Guatemala had taken pictures and then sent the film over to Boyle Heights. Young women photographed their community using the same film. I loved seeing both my homes in such an artistic expression, and knowing that this was a cross-cultural exchange between teenage girls solidified my commitment to this organization.
I began by first helping with outreach and encouraging students to apply to the program. Then, I volunteered to help with gallery set-up and promoting their events. Finally, the Executive Director suggested I join the Advisory Board. I am now the Board Chair and I have also been able to participate in an amazing photography project, Maya Womxn in LA led by Dr. Floridalma Boj-Lopez, UCLA professor. Guatemalan teen girls (some of whom were my students) photographed Maya women living in Los Angeles. It was such an empowering and affirming experience. We also got to travel to Guatemala with the girls and showcase their art there, while meeting Guatemalan organizers.
I continue to try to support projects, such as these, and am happy that there is an organization that supports youth expression through the arts. Now imagine if we can get the girls in sports photography and collaborating with ACFC? That would be awesome!
Q: What does the community of Boyle Heights Bridge Runners mean to you? What makes this group so meaningful to the Boyle Heights community as a whole?
A: The Boyle Heights Bridge Runners (BHBR) mean so much to me. I had participated briefly in track during high school, but I never considered myself a runner. Fast-forward through college, career, children, I was constantly struggling with making time for exercise and feeling motivated in my body. When I came out to run with BHBR for the first time, I felt welcomed and encouraged to run in the community. 8 years later, and I’ve met such amazing people, whom I consider my close friends. We support one another through running races together, encouraging our running goals (even if they shift), and being there for each other overall. I have run through heartbreak, career changes, and have also brought my children to run with me. BHBR is so much more than a running crew, it is a community space that allows us to take up space, run the streets of Boyle Heights, and share our triumphs and sometimes, failures. It is also a healing experience for me. As someone who deals with anxiety, running is a way for me to release that tension. Sometimes I want to go running but I have to consider how late it is, whether the area I am running is safe, deal with catcalls, etc. and that can be very discouraging. But with BHBR, I am able to run without having to think of those safety concerns. It’s so liberating!
Anyone is welcome, any age, any level and there are two options: 2 miles or 3 miles every Wednesday at 7:45 pm starting from Mariachi Plaza.
Q: It sounds like you wear a lot of hats, from social justice advocate to educator to mother. What are some things you do to find balance and time for yourself as you navigate all of your passions in life?
A: It is a work in progress! Sometimes it runs smoothly, other times, I have to prioritize what I can commit to at that moment. I have to be forgiving of myself when I can’t balance it all and celebrate the moments I can with rest. I found that asking these questions before I commit to a new passion has helped me set better boundaries and take care of myself:
- Am I passionate about this? Will it bring me joy?
- Can I do it well? Meaning, do I have the time and capacity to do this right now?
- How will this impact my family? Especially in regards to time and childcare.
Having a moment to check in and really sit with these questions have helped me make better decisions. I also have a tight-knit support system that checks in on me and reminds me to take breaks and engage in self-care.
Q: What does it mean to you to have a professional women’s soccer team in Los Angeles?
A: I am super excited, especially to be involved from the beginning. My first connection to soccer was going to the soccer stadium with my Tio. We would go to Estadio Mario Camposeco and root for our hometown team Club Xelaju, also nicknamed Super Chivos (super goats). He would sometimes carry me on his shoulders and tell me not to repeat any of the cuss words I heard. This is such a fond memory I have and I mostly went to spend time with my uncle and eat snacks.
As I got older, I didn't really follow soccer, unless it was a major tournament. However, my friends invited me to attend a LAFC game during their first season and I joined them in the supporters’ section. I was instantly hooked. The passion and energy was contagious and I became a fan. They had just started an independent supporters’ group called Lxs Tigres del Northend where they connected our love for our soccer team along with our social justice work. Just as we were organizing in our communities, protesting in the streets, we could also use soccer as a vehicle to continue building awareness and challenging the racism, sexism, and homophobia that can often be experienced in the field and in the stands. Now many of us in that crew are excited to build with ACFC from the beginning and continue to push for equity, especially in support of a women’s team in our community!
Q: What are you looking forward to most from Angel City FC’s inaugural season in 2022?
A: I am looking forward to building and participating in the supporters’ culture around ACFC. I am hopeful that community engagement will be constant and authentic with events happening throughout Los Angeles, and local girls’ soccer teams and community members being included. I hope this inaugural season will be empowering, joyful, and accessible to all!
Q: When do you feel bold? What makes you feel bold?
A: My community makes me bold! I know they have my back and I have theirs. It is community love and trust that keeps me going.