EL CENTRO — Nine local individuals characterized as ordinary people doing extraordinary things were honored Saturday for embodying and promoting the ideals of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The recognition came during this year’s MLK Stone of Hope award ceremony, which highlighted the past and present efforts of a local minister, former boxer and farm worker organizer, life coach and electrician, retired public servant as well as a nonprofit executive, co-founder and manager.
The varied backgrounds of the diverse group underscored the event’s overarching theme, namely that anyone can make a positive impact in their communities if they choose to do so, said Erika Aguilar during her welcoming remarks.
“Everybody can be great because anyone can serve,” Aguilar said, paraphrasing King.
The nine Stone of Hope honorees were selected by the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Committee and each received a medallion and the namesake award, a miniature replica of the granite statue of King located at the MLK Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Among her many accomplishments, Rita Blair was honored for having co-founded the Church of the Living Waters in El Centro along with her husband in 1999, as well as caring for six foster children.
Blair said she had been inspired as a young student by King and the sacrifices he made to make the world a better place.
“Martin Luther King was fighting for us all not just the black community,” Blair said.
Storied farm worker organizer and lechuguero (lettuce cutter) Mario Bustamante was recognized for his past work on behalf of farm workers. Though he would eventually part ways with the United Farm Workers union in the early 1980s, he credits the experience with teaching him to organize and introducing him to lifelong friends.
During his brief remarks, Bustamante was visibly choked up, which prompted a hearty round of applause.
Certified life coach and entrepreneur Felicia Carter spoke about how having been bullied as a child and growing up in a household headed by her Green Beret father motivated her to pursue her current line of work, where she elevates, educates and motivates young people.
“The only way you can make your life happen is to get up and do it,” Carter said.
Imperial Valley LGBT Resource Center Chief Executive Officer Rosa Diaz said she was glad to be honored at an event that equally promoted social justice and equality and praised God.
Westmorland native Ernie “Mono” Fierro was honored for his work with local disadvantaged youth, and having founded Boxing Against Drugs in 1985.
The former professional middleweight boxer and Brawley Union High School security guard apparently served as an inspiration for fellow award recipient and Westmorland native Julio Jauregui, who also devoted his adult life to helping youth as Brawley Pop Warner president and Brawley Parks and Recreation board member.
“It feels good to give back in whatever capacity you’re in,” Jauregui, a retired Social Security Administration supervisor said.
When called to receive her reward, Calexico Brown Bag Coalition co-founder Maribel Padilla was jokingly and lovingly referred to as a name often reserved for female dogs.
Padilla recounted the coalition’s origins and ongoing work, which aside from the daily meals it provides to homeless individuals in Calexico is also in the process of raising funds to buy a trailer and mobile shower.
“If anybody here has a rich uncle who needs a tax deduction, see me,” Padilla said.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member and combat veteran Erskine “EJ” Patton told those gathered about the inspiration he has drawn from working with youth in the past as a seventh-grade and Pop Warner football coach.
“If you just stop and talk to the kids, you learn a lot,” Patton said.
He also reminded those gathered of upcoming community events, such as the Jan. 20 march and rally at the Superior Court steps reenacting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lastly, Sylvia Elia Preciado-Platero spoke about how the love of her family has been a driving force in her life. She also spoke about the importance of being able to speak openly and diplomatically with people with which one disagrees with.
“We are somebody and we have a voice and we have to use it,” Preciado-Platero said.
The annual event, held this year at the Old Eucalyptus Schoolhouse, got underway with the presentation of the American and state flag by the Calexico Police Department Color Guard and a rousing performance by the Heber Hawks Drumline.
Dr. Gregory Hamilton served as the event’s keynote speaker. Hamilton, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based civil rights activist and Come Unto Me Behavioral Health clinical program manager, told those gathered that more work needs to be done to fulfill King’s dream of social harmony.
Though people of different races and economic status now appear to tolerate one another and even exist peacefully together, King’s teachings expected more of civilized societies.
“I think it was to fight injustice together,” Hamilton said.
In a lengthy speech that had echoes of King’s oratory talents, Hamilton went on to say that one must take the initiative to emancipate themselves and help liberate their communities instead of solely waiting for people in positions of power to address social injustices.
“You will have to learn to use your powers amongst your own community,” he said.
Aside from the nine Stone of Hope honorees, organizers presented Lupe Quintero, California Rural Legal Assistance community worker program director, and Desiree Johnson, event co-organizer, with certificates of appreciation for their commitment to social equality.
The Imperial Valley Black Lives Matter chapter also recognized three individuals for their work helping empower disenfranchised communities.
They included Crystal Quezada, American Civil Liberties Union senior community advocate, Amy Zamudio, San Diego area community activist, and Aeiramique Glass-Blake, 51st Congressional District candidate.
“It takes sacrifice, dedication, commitment and hard work to fulfill the moral contract enshrined in our constitution that all men are created equal,” said Hilton Smith, local Black Lives Matter coordinator, prior to presenting them with the award.
Glass-Blake was honored with the 2019 Black Lives Matter Person of the Year Award. In accepting the honor, she acknowledged the recent health challenges she has encountered and the additional motivation the experience has provided.
“Sometimes the greatest work comes out of our pain, out of our struggle,” Glass-Blake said.