Araceli and Family


Araceli Robles, Tireless Fighter for Renters' Rights and Promotora for the People

City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.


When Araceli Robles and her two children first came to Santa Ana to reunite with her husband in the early 2000s, she felt a strange kinship with the city almost immediately. Its mostly-Latino population and businesses catering to the Latino community reminded her of Guadalajara, the city she grew up in. But despite the familiarity and her joy of her family being reunited, witnessing firsthand the living conditions of her new home gave her pause.

Ever since she could remember, Robles had always lived in a house. So when she discovered her new living space — a one-room apartment located in a densely populated apartment building, where multiple families shared one unit — she was stunned. "My main priority [in coming to the United States] was for all of us to be together. When I arrived, I saw [the city] was something else, another world that I never thought I would experience."

This brand new world proved tricky to navigate for Robles and other immigrants like her. While the city, especially the downtown Santa Ana area, was booming with cultural pride and flourishing Latino commercial districts, families themselves faced marginalization in the housing market due to the high cost of rentals and housing. Santa Ana, a city with the largest population of Latinos in the county, topped the Rockefeller Institute's 2004 list of cities facing urban hardship based on a variety of social and economic factors. Requirements for renting include making at least three times the monthly rent. "And if you have children, landlords are more likely to turn you away from renting," Robles explains.

As Robles slowly ingrained herself with neighbors and fellow parents who related with similar experiences, she began to volunteer at the Latino Health Access, a nonprofit organization that provides mental and public health services to under-served families in the community. Robles eventually became hired as a promotora, or trained worker, and takes on any task that needs doing whether its organizing relief fundraisers for evicted resident, or making food and coffee for meetings. As a promotora, Robles holds weekly community meetups called 'cafecitos' to discuss courses of action and teach renters how to advocate for themselves in cases of abuses from landlords or elitism from housing associations. 

Araceli Robles (far right)

Of her job, Robles says it gives her joy and satisfaction to be able to form connections with people and empower renters with the knowledge of their basic rights.

“On one occasion, we had a talk and many people said the American dream was to own a house and a car, and I realized I hadn't achieved that,” Robles says. “But for me, my American dream is to be a promotora. My family and I work through difficult situations, and I've been able to do that with other people. And that's what I like the most, it fills my heart, my soul. To be a promotora, for me, is the American dream, the house comes second.”

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While she derives a lot of gratification in making a difference, being a promotora also provides Robles a welcome distraction from the stress of her own living situation. She, her husband, two grown sons, teenage daughter, granddaughter and granddaughter's mother share a one bedroom apartment together. The cramped space and lack of privacy contribute greatly to Robles' chronic health problems and stress, as does the amount of daily labor she puts in to take care of the household.

"They tell me 'you need to relax, you need to take care of yourself,' and I respond with, 'how?' It's not that I don't have time, because if I have to do something I will, but sometimes there are other priorities that I have to do for my family." Some of those priorities include taking care of her granddaughter while her mother is at school and spending time with her teenage daughter.

Araceli and Family
Araceli and her family

To add to her stress, Robles' son, Diego, has explosive episodes of schizophrenia, so when he has an episode, she takes care that he doesn't harm anyone. These occur quite frequently and randomly. "I feel a huge weight on my shoulders," Robles says. "It's very difficult … but we're giving it a lot of effort. Every day when my son wakes up I tell him, 'just for today, just for today, God only knows if [an episode] will come but I'll live [today] and I'll enjoy it."

Before moving into their current apartment, Robles and her family lived in the Lacy barrio, which, according to former Santa Ana-based scholars Carolina Sarmiento and Revel Sims, is the site of massive tenant overcrowding and gentrification. According to the study, which surveyed over four hundred residents in the neighborhood, a staggering sixty-three percent claimed that housing violations "such as infestations, mold, damp walls, defective plumbing and electrical work and walls, ceilings and floors [were] in need of repair" due to landlord neglect. Also reported in the study, over forty-two percent of residents "report[ed] at least one type of infestation from rats to cockroaches or bedbugs." Roughly the same amount of residents reported having their rent increased from last year.

"It's abuse after abuse after abuse," Robles says. "Right now with the fear at the state of the world and the political climate, people are scared and will deal with any abuse for fear of having la migra called on them."

Her former landlord in the Lacy neighborhood offered Robles and her family to stay after their lease ended, "but I would be surveilled so much, and my son [Diego] wouldn't be able to come in. So I said, 'you can keep [the apartment].' I haven't robbed or done anything wrong. It was like they wanted to keep me on probation like a criminal," Robles explains.

Promotoras hear of these types of injustices all the time, wherein landlords abuse their legal right to make their own terms for residency, or evict a tenant for whatever reason. In September of this year, the LHA took part in a nationwide rally for renter's rights organized by the Community Lands for Community Hands coalition and Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities. Activities included renters rights workshops, a vigil in the Lacy neighborhood, a bike ride gentrification tour and a renters rights march organized by the LHA. The event, which called for strategies of rent-controlled housing and community land trusts, worked to clear any misinformation about renters rights due to their legal citizenship status.

It's a glimmer of hope for Robles and other promotoras, who see no end in sight for the ongoing gentrification and housing crises that affect this and multiple cities around the world. But Robles sees Santa Ana as a city of resistance, so she plans to keep doing her job to help others resist, too.

“It would be a miracle for me to be able to buy a house. But I have a lot of faith that one day I'll achieve it because I'm a person with a lot of perseverance. It might take me some years, but I know what I want now. And that helps me a lot.”

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