Anthony Rocha is not only the youngest person on the Salinas City Council, but is also a fourth-year student at UC Santa Cruz. Rocha began his political journey at 19 years old as a member on the Salinas High School District board; in the time since, he’s worked to elevate young voices in his community.
Anthony Rocha is in his fourth year at UC Santa Cruz pursuing a degree in Legal Studies. But instead of taking on the typical extracurricular activities, the 22-year-old holds a seat on the Salinas City Council.
Rocha has made a name for himself as a young political voice that doesn’t let his age define his capability in the political realm. He says that young people can be, should be and deserve to be in office whether it’s locally, statewide or nationwide.
“One of the things that I really am intentional about is making sure that my story is able to inspire someone to run for office,” he said. “Not to say ‘Wow, you’re able to do it and I can never do it.’ No. I want you to feel like you can do it.”
Rocha said he is frequently asked about how he is able to balance the life of a full-time student with the commute from Salinas to Santa Cruz, along with the responsibilities of a city councilmember. His answer? “A lot of long nights.”
“Throughout the campaign, most times I probably didn’t go to bed till 3 or 4 in the morning, because there just weren’t enough hours in the day,” he said. “It was a lot of determination, and I just had to press forward.”
Giving back to his community
Born and raised in Salinas, Rocha was just 5 when his father died of cancer. He said he and his sister, along with their Latina mother— a certified nursing assistant —experienced racism and discrimination, both of which he said he didn’t understand at the time.
“I always wondered why people who look like me were treated differently,” he said. “And growing up having that question of, ‘This doesn’t seem fair, and why is this happening to me?’”
Rocha attended Everett Alvarez High School and graduated in 2018 where he advocated for a new district-wide farm for the high school FFA — formerly Future Farmers of America — programs. He said at the time, the school’s farm had no access to electricity, and was located near the county jail while another more affluent school in the area had a state-of-the-art facility.
After garnering support from other students, Rocha and a handful of students went before the school board to voice their concerns.
“That didn’t go anywhere,” he said. “And I tried to speak to my school board representative and I felt that she was No. 1, not interested in what I had to say, but No. 2 wasn’t really going to be an advocate for students.”
Carla Viviana Gonzalez, a UCSC alumnus and Salinas City Council member, has known Rocha since he was a sophomore in high school.
“You couldn’t quiet down Anthony even if you tried,” Gonzalez said. “He is very much a person of conviction, is very calculated, and is someone who is sharp and smart. And it can be so daunting to be the young, progressive, Latinx person on the dais.”
Rocha attributes most of his young political awakening to the 2016 presidential election.
“I think it was a perfect storm,” he said, “for a lot of young people to wake up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is not going to be our future.’”
Youth in office
After graduating high school, Rocha ran for a seat on the Salinas High School District board at 19 years old. He said he ran because student concerns were not well represented on the board, and he wanted to make a point about the importance of listening to young people.
He ran against an incumbent with little belief he was going to win, but to his own surprise he won 62% of the vote.
“The funny part is I actually didn’t even want to have an election night party because I was almost certain that I was going to lose,” he said, “but people encouraged me to have one.”
Rocha went door-to-door campaigning, raising funds and gaining support from his community. He was able to raise $8,000, but not without some backlash.
“Their response to me was always ‘Anthony, you’re 19 years old,’ like it was something that I didn’t know. I’m thinking to myself, that’s why I’m running, because I think it’s important to have student voices represented.”
In 2019 Rocha began working towards his associate degree at Hartnell Community College, while still serving on the school board. He became the first in his family to graduate from college, and credits his mother’s support.
As the 2020 Salians City Council elections approached, Rocha found himself questioning whether he was the right person for the job, but after talking to friends and supporters, Rocha decided to join the race. It also happened to be his first quarter at UCSC.
And he won, getting the highest percentage of votes in the three-way race.
Since being on the council, he has focused on affordable housing — something Rocha said his family struggled with when they moved to Salinas — and equitable distribution of public funds.
His plans after graduating? Rocha says he’s grateful for the opportunities and experiences he’s gained in the political field in his community, but is working towards becoming a labor attorney in his future.
“I’d love for more young people to run for elected positions,” he said. “Because ultimately, it’s our future. Having young voices at the table is really important when it comes to creating a more sustainable and just future for our community.”