UCSC rising sophomore Ray Diaz brings student, worker issues to the forefront

UC Santa Cruz student Ray Diaz
Rising sophomore Ray Diaz recounts his first year at UC Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As Ray Diaz finishes his first year at UC Santa Cruz — which included a run for student body president and meeting Angela Davis — he’s finally taking a breath and realizing he “did do a lot.” He’s got a dorm room full of mementos to remind him of just how much he’s done, and how much he still wants to do. 

UC Santa Cruz rising sophomore Ray Diaz says he lives by one phrase: people over everything.

In doing so, his presence on the UCSC campus this past year has caused some “good trouble.” For one, he helped organize the student protest during the John R. Lewis dedication ceremony last month.

To remember some of that good trouble, Diaz has kept mementos from those times and decorated his shelves, desk and chair, and walls in his dorm room with them. Near the top of the altar of mementos is a poster that reads: “Wake up! The sun is rising, people everywhere are organizing.”

The image is of five hands holding up different tools, with a sun rising behind them. It’s his favorite memento partly because it was used at an event for International Workers’ Day, marked on May 1 and also known as May Day.

“Workers’ rights have always been so important to me. My family comes from that sector. My father works in maintenance, my grandmother works cleaning and taking care of elderly,” he said. “My grandparents and other elders worked in the fields picking oranges for a living in Orange County. Hard labor had always been a normal thing for the familia.”

Ray, a politics major, says his roots and identity drive him. A Chicano from the Southern California city of Santa Ana, his family encouraged him to go to college and get out of hard labor work. While he’s listened to that advice and is at UCSC, he’s planning on bringing what he learns at school back to his community — and carry on the same fight for workers’ rights.

“I take that to heart every day because I look at workers, like the custodial workers here on campus, our dining hall workers here on campus, I see my grandma, I see my mom,” he said. “And it’s my way of saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to stop the fight, even if I’m 300 miles away.’”

UC Santa Cruz student Ray Diaz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Ray is very close to his parents, and he looks up to them each in different and significant ways.

“So my mom is the rock of the family. She is my best friend,” he said. “The first person I always go to if I’m ever feeling some type of way.”

His father, Ray says, is the worker of the family.

“So he’s the one that got us through a lot in the early on while my mom was going to school,” he said. “So my dad definitely was the one that made that sacrifice that didn’t graduate from high school.”

His mom, Lisbeth López-Diaz, works at Jordan High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, supporting academic counselors who help students struggling to graduate. She first went to Santa Ana Community College, transferred to UC Irvine and then received a master’s in social work at the University of Southern California.

Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, her father helped her and her sister cross the border when she was about 8 years old. It was during her time in foster care, when she received support from a counselor, that she realized she wanted to be a counselor for others in need. As she raised Ray and his three siblings, she made sure to instill the importance of serving others.

“And so I would always tell them, ‘Look, you can be whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you need to find an organization somewhere where you volunteer, because I don’t want your life to just be about a career and not serve others,’ López-Diaz said. “That’s what we came into this world for.”

While she’s not surprised that Ray lives by the phrase “people over everything,” she was surprised when he decided to run for president as a freshman this year — and when he first decided to run for something in the sixth grade. He won several other elections in middle school and high school. During that first election, and this year at UCSC, Lisbeth believed in his ability, but she was still nervous about him putting himself out there.

“It did surprise me, but it didn’t shock me,” she said. “I felt like he was going to get a rude awakening — which is pretty much what ended up happening. But I also felt like this is the way people grow up.”

It’s rare for a UCSC freshman to run for Student Union Assembly president, but Ray was determined. With his involvement in various student organizations, and in his role as chief of staff at the SUA Office of Internal Affairs, he felt he had made a name for himself and could win.

UC Santa Cruz student Ray Diaz
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We went for it and it was such a great experience because we garnered 1,300 votes,” he said. “We were only around 400-something votes away from winning. So honestly, we did a really good job.”

When he says “we,” he really means himself. He managed his own campaign, as students normally do, while continuing to study and keeping up his involvement with student organizations including the Student Housing Coalition, Hermanos Unidos, Cereal Club and the Worker Student Solidarity Coalition.

It was at a coalition meeting that Izadora “Iza” Amarís, a rising UCSC senior, remembers first engaging with Ray. Formed in 2018, the coalition was established by students showing support for UC service worker union AFSCME 3299 as it negotiated a contract. It’s composed of undergraduate students who advocate for a wide range of worker rights and student rights.

Iza, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls thinking in the first encounters with Ray at the coalition meeting that he was very bright and driven — and his impression on them has only grown.

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“He is a powerful force on campus,” they said. “And I think so much of that comes from his ability to create community, and his ability to really connect with people, and the amount of effort that he puts into trying to hear what’s going on on campus.”

Next year, Ray will be labor commissioner— serving as a student liaison to build a partnership between students and unions; the Black Student Union and the Student Union Assembly appointed him to the role. He’s also looking forward to being more involved with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán, known as MEChA. The student organization represents Latinx and Chicanx students on campus and works on the advancement of civil and human rights.

More than another run for president — which is still an option — Ray is thinking about continuing to build connections and creating change. He might not be doing that as SUA president next year, but he realized doesn’t need to in order to have an impact.

As one of the emcees during the John R. Lewis College dedication ceremony, Ray helped lead a protest. As an appointed John R. Lewis college representative, he was tapped to co-emcee the event.

When UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive and University of California President Michael V. Drake spoke, students held signs that read, “We can see your greed UC.” During the ceremony, Ray called on the administrators to meet the demands of UC students and workers.

In the weeks following the ceremony, Ray said several students who recognized him approached him and thanked him for the protest.

“It was weird [to be approached]. It was almost better than if I had won the election. I didn’t run for the title or to put it on a résumé, I ran because I wanted to put student issues at the forefront, and in the university’s face,” he said. “I’m able to do that even without that position. And seeing students recognize the work, it’s motivating.”

Cheru Robinson and Ray Diaz start the John R. Lewis dedication ceremony at UC Santa Cruz.
College Ten students Cheru Robinson and Ray Diaz start the John R. Lewis dedication ceremony at the Quarry Amphitheater on May 6.
(Nik Altenberg / Lookout Santa Cruz)