The community mourns the loss of another giant

The loss of Rubén Castilla Herrera, the son of farmworkers Pura Castilla Herrera and Alfredo Torres Herrera, finds Ohio residents searching in vain for the words to express what the life and work of this dedicated area activist and community firebrand has meant to those he touched.

An Ohioan since 1987, Herrera was born in Seguin, Texas, and raised in Salem, Oregon. His departure on Saturday, April 6, has left many of us asking the question, “What do I do?” Always at the forefront of a call to progressive action, he took a stand for social justice movements that included, but were not limited to, the Columbus Sanctuary Collective, Black Lives Matter, Central Ohio Workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Columbus Taco Reparations Brigade, LGBTQ rights and the rights of refugees.

While a swath of remarks posted on social media sites amply attest to his reach as an organizer, they also convey messages about the ways he moved people, not just with words and ideas, but with the incredible intimacy that he brought to the human experience.

Herrera's utmost faith in the potential of community comes through in his choice of the social media hashtag he used: #trustthecircle. In a conversation I had with him about identity and social action in August 2017, he shared the depth of his wonderment and compassion for both strangers and friends in his day-to-day life. From his words, it became clear he was always looking for the common threads to ignite empathy and action.

“Immigrant and non-immigrant, new Americans, refugees … we're always trying to re-navigate those spaces through individual cases but also for the collective. Familia, mi gente, comunidad. [To me, that] feels natural, it feels real, but still difficult … still challenging,” he said.

“What feels natural?” I asked him. “And what feels challenging?”

“A veces quiero llorar, I just want to cry,” he explained. “[That] can come from joy, and also can come from anger, or just beauty. When you're dealing with people, it's just hard. Yesterday, we were with this older man who was stopped by a police officer. He found our number — we have a rapid response hotline. This man was scared because he got a driving ticket and he was literally scared for his life. … His cry was one of, ‘What am I going to do?' Even as a person with papeles [papers], I'm feeling that way. I just want to check in. I want to ask, ‘What do I do?' In these times, more and more … you see it just walking down the street. It's not just immigrants. It's poor white people, people addicted to some kind of drug. ‘What do I do?' They ask it in different ways. … I think once you're in tune to that, there's no way you can untune it.”

The gift of peering deeply into the vulnerabilities and beauty of others, this “never untuned” aspect of Herrera's personality, was coupled with genuine modesty and a sly sense of humor that is reflected in the many voices sounding out to lift their gratitude for his contributions. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Alliance for Fair Food shared, “Ever since Rubén began supporting the CIW in 2011, he gave himself profoundly to this struggle. He helped found Ohio Fair Food. He carried the message of farmworkersacross the state of Ohio. He participated in farmworkeractions in Florida. He coordinated marches, community gatherings and vigils, and he was incredibly significant in mobilizing more than 800 people in front of the Wendy's headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, which hadn't been seen in the history of that town. … There is no sufficient way to thank him or share our gratitude for his dedication and for the work he did during the years that he was part of our struggle.”

Professor Frederick Aldama of Ohio State University said, “His low, calm, soothing voice, matched with a fervent critical and activist mind, led us all swiftly into his spell-binding world of purposeful life. I, along with the Latinx students, hungered for more.From the alpha to omega of our friendship, I can say that being in the proximate orbit of Rubén's passion, agile intellect and courageous humility has made me and all others better human beings.”

And from Miriam Vargas, mother of two who entered sanctuary on June 27, 2018, at First English Lutheran Church: “Mi ángel me dejó sola. … Estoy agradecida por todo lo que me ayudó.” (“My angel has left me alone. … I am grateful for all he did to help me.”)

Writing on Facebook, Austin Kocher, a professor and researcher on undocumented immigration and human rights, and the president of Central Ohio Worker Center, said, “Rubén was an irreplaceable force from a generation that still knew how to move people with words and ideas. … To see his struggle was to see the contradictions of America work its way through a life, and to see that life push back with a ferocity born of profound love.”

Family, friends and organizers for progressive action in the Columbus area and beyond will continue to struggle for the words to synthesize the different transformative actions and sentiments Herrera shared under the seeming simplicity of his invitation to “trust the circle.”

My remarks, like the subject to whom they are dedicated, must come to a close while they are still woefully unfinished. I hope that a bit of his humor and passion for his life partner, family and beloved garden come through in the following words, again from our 2017 conversation, in which he talks about an encounter with two Jehovah's Witnesses that took place on a city bus earlier that day.

“They thought I was Latino, and then it was an opportunity to practice their Spanish. They asked me how my day was, and [I had been] working in the yard — that's how I center myself,” Herrera said. “I told them I was painting my deck because I had family coming.”

One of the Jehovah's Witnesses then asked, “Is your wife going to be cooking a lot of Mexican food?”

Herrera marveled at the assumptions behind this question. “First of all, I'm queer, and I don't have a wife, I have a partner … so that's the first,” he said. “The other assumption is that my wife was going to be Mexican. Crazy, right? … In this case, there are certain battles you don't fight, and I just didn't have time. I just said, ‘No.'”

I think of Rubén Castilla Herrera, finding his spirit's alignment in his garden and in the love he shared with his partner, Nick. He had been happily anticipating the arrival of family, this convener of circles and fighter of battles that are worth fighting: our relentlessly generous Dolores-Huerta-meets-Harvey-Milk-meets-Father-Greg-Boyle, all rolled into one. He was a gifted seer of the magic in ordinary moments that, once you tune in to them, can't be untuned.

Herrera is survived by his partner, Nicholas Pasquarello; daughters Rita Herrera, Naomi Chamberlain, and Marisa Garverick Herrera; son Ruben Herrera, Jr.; daughter-in-law Angie Wilhelm Herrera; son-in-law Joshua Chamberlain; son-in-law to be Preston Osborn; 10 grandchildren; and siblings Rosemary, Raul, Rudy, Roland and Guido.

A “celebración de vida” in honor of Herrera's life and legacy will be held on Saturday, April 13, at 3 p.m. at Broad Street United Methodist Church, located at 501 E. Broad St. Downtown, followed by time for food and community. Prior to the service, a march from the Ohio Statehouse to Broad Street United Methodist Church will take place at 2 p.m. Herrera's family is deeply appreciative of the financial and emotional support from all of the people from his community. As an expression of solidarity, the family requests that, in lieu of flowers, any future financial contributions be made to Mijente: members.mijente.net/donate.

Rubén Castilla Herrera: ¡PRESENTE!

Correction: The passage from Austin Kocher was incorrectly credited to Jessica Shimberg. Alive regrets the error.