Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez, founder of Barrios Unidos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

‘We can do better’: Longtime leader of Barrios Unidos continues to work on solutions for violence, inequity

Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez has been a man on a mission since he arrived in Santa Cruz County to attend UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s. Barrios Unidos recently purchased a corner building on Soquel Avenue, transforming its huge garage into a performance space.

The founder of Barrios Unidos is a luminary in post-1960s peace circles. He is a Santa Cruz-based leader unafraid to challenge norms surrounding poverty and violence.

Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, 72, was born near a Missouri cotton field and moved to Santa Cruz from California’s Central Valley in the early 1970s, to attend UC Santa Cruz. He has stuck around and accomplished much in the years since earning a bachelor’s degree in film.

Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez in the simulated prison he has created.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Alejandrez says he is not concerned with possible run-ups against those caught within the cycle of violence and unafraid of practicing his blend of peaceful resistance and healing outside the law enforcement system.

“If I’m afraid of being ‘green-lighted,’ he said, “I have no business doing this work.”

If I’m afraid of being ‘green-lighted,’ I have no business doing this work.

Alejandrez said he challenges “violence, not gangs,” and law enforcement “abuse,” not law enforcement.

Events like the one Barrios Unidos will host at its Soquel Avenue headquarters on Saturday symbolize the group’s mission for helping fill in important gaps for marginalized communities. Called “I Survived (Life),” the event’s purpose is to “gain a deeper perspective from formerly incarcerated women of how they dealt with family responsibilities from inside of prison.”

Alejandrez, who founded the group with the help of his wife, Jenny, and others, has traveled the world with a message of nonviolence. He has shaken hands with the Dalai Lama and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. He calls Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte friends and supporters. His respect for his mentors and friends Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta is hard to miss.

“We never shy away from telling the truth,” Alejandrez said. “How do we deal with all the inequities in Santa Cruz County?”

We never shy away from telling the truth. How do we deal with all the inequities in Santa Cruz County?

Barrios Unidos gets support from people and foundations outside Santa Cruz and has silkscreen and other businesses. Landownership is important to the organization, a legacy of its “elders.”

This year, the group purchased a corner building once owned by Wilson’s Tire, transforming its huge garage into a performance space. Barrios owns most of a city block, about two acres, with reentry, dance and other classes held in various sections, and a large outdoor courtyard lined with murals and other art.

Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez shows off the inside of a trailer replicating a maximum-security prison.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the courtyard is a trailer replicating a maximum-security prison, graphically displaying the constraints of that life. And these days, Alejandrez is feeling the truth of his message all the more.

“We can do better,” he said. “As a society, we can do much better.”

A turning point came about a year ago, Alejandrez said, on Oct. 24, 2020, when three men were shot in Watsonville. Two of them died and a third was hospitalized in critical condition.

About 10 months later, on Aug. 31, a 17-year-old was stabbed and killed at Aptos High School.

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In the most recent county homicide, a 21-year-old man was killed near an intersection amid farm fields outside Watsonville. Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s investigators said the young Castroville man was beside his car when emergency responders arrived. No details of the investigation have been released.

The victim’s aunt wrote recently on a GoFundMe site that the man’s father had died in May, and with the homicide of Abel Ruiz III, “tragedy has painfully hit our family twice this year.”

Inside the prison trailer at Barrios Unidos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We can do better, Alejandrez insists, and Barrios Unidos has many examples of men and women who have been incarcerated, taken responsibility and are ready to heal and give back to the community.

Alejandrez is now connecting with grandparents and great-grandparents in his work with those affected by violence. After the stabbing at Aptos High, several “elders” joined Barrios Unidos at a vigil in Watsonville City Plaza. He said they spoke to him about the pain of lost loved ones and what could be done to bring change.

Local law enforcement, including Santa Cruz Police Department, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and Watsonville Police Department, speak highly of having the Barrios Unidos peace movement in the community. That has not always been the case; years ago, community members carried signs to keep the group out and hurled eggs at a key mural, in apparent fear of who and what the organization would bring to their neighborhood. Neighbors now understand Barrios Unidos much better, Alejandrez said.

“We’re about integrity, culture and spirit,” he said. “It’s about people that need help.”

Food services are a big part of what Barrios Unidos does.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For one man, help filling his belly is much appreciated.

David Drake of Santa Cruz, recently retired “from computer support stuff,” as he put it, said Barrios has the best food giveaway in town. And one needs only to show up and line up.

“I live alone, in a two-room cottage,” Drake said. “This means I eat better. If I eat out, the sooner I’ll be homeless.”

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Alejandrez is also contemplating who might step into his leadership role. Community leadership is sorely needed, he says. He is not leaving, but might be spending more time at the five-acre Walter Guzman Retreat Center the group owns in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“I love Santa Cruz,” he said. “My kids love Santa Cruz. UCSC saved my life.”

Soquel resident George Lopez said it was rough growing up in Santa Cruz’s Beach Flats neighborhood, and that Barrios Unidos’ youth soccer program helped save his life.

“Now I need to help others spread the love,” said Lopez, 31. “You have to help.”