‘Care over profits’: UCSC student body prez organizing to elevate student voice

New UC Santa Cruz student body president Alfredo Gama Salmeron on campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

New student body president Alfredo Gama Salmeron is feeling the excitement of the new year among UC Santa Cruz students as pandemic restrictions have almost entirely ended. With the Student Union Assembly team of directors and volunteers, he hopes to bring students together to create art, improve emotional and academic support for students and reorganize the university’s budget to prioritize students.

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A Q&A with UCSC student body president Alfredo Gama Salmeron

Newly elected UC Santa Cruz student body president Alfredo Gama Salmeron — whose preferred name is Tlatoani Quetzalcoatl Xochipatl — wants to bring as many students together as possible to make positive change for all students.

He sees his role not as someone who represents all students, but one who will unite them.

“When I got elected, I told students, I’m not running to represent you, I can’t do that. If you run for something, anyone, like you, can’t possibly present more people than yourself,” he said. “But I told students, when I call for a meeting, you have to show up.”

He’ll lead the Student Union Assembly (SUA), or student government, alongside directors, interns and representatives from colleges and student groups. He’ll also manage a budget of $623,000, which will be directed to clubs, events and initiatives.

At 26, Xochipatl, short for his preferred name, is a third-year transfer student majoring in legal studies. Originally from Iguala de la Independencia, a city in the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, he moved to the United States at the age of 7 and was raised in Los Angeles. He and his four other siblings grew up with his mother.

After spending most of his time in the States undocumented, he and his family received legal status about four years ago.

He drew inspiration from his roots and time at Standing Rock in 2016 to choose his preferred name, which is in Nahuatl — a language or group of languages spoken in southern Mexico and Central America.

“Tlatoani is the person who speaks,” he said. “Quetzalcoatl is the feathered serpent. Xochipatl is chamomile, the plant that heals.”

He attended high school at Nathaniel Narbonne High School in Harbor City before a higher education path that eventually led him to several colleges, including El Camino College, Harbor College and Santa Monica College, before finishing his associate degree in psychology at East Los Angeles College in May 2020. He served as a 2019-20 student trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District, the largest community college district in the nation.

Xochipatl started his time at UC Santa Cruz in fall 2020, first remotely from L.A. then moving onto campus for spring 2021. He lived in Stevenson House 7 through spring 2022 before moving to downtown Santa Cruz this fall.

While a student at UCSC, he’s been active on campus and in the community. On campus, Xochipatl has been part of TWANAS Communities of Color and Native American Students Press, which produces an annual magazine. And since a legal studies seminar introduced him to the Tenant Sanctuary, he’s been an active tenant counselor, helping inform UCSC students and community members understand their rights and access legal support.

So far this year, he’s already brought his advocacy to the classroom. This week, a professor referred to Indigenous peoples as conquered people.

“And I was like, ‘I don’t feel conquered. I think that I feel occupied,’” he said. “I feel that there’s an occupation, ongoing occupation, and reservations are still fighting.”

He asked the professor to not refer to Indigenous people as conquered people. The professor interrupted his question, he said, and told him that’s not what the course was about, laughed and continued to take other questions.

“If I’m feeling this way, a lot of students are feeling that way,” he said, adding he’s had about five similar interactions with professors in his time at UCSC.

As SUA president, he says he’s setting his sights on some of his biggest goals yet: ensuring students have equitable access to succeed and reorganizing the university’s budget to prioritize students over administrator salaries.

“Someone told me, the university is like a microcosm of society,” he said. “We get to try things out here, and if they work here. We can transform society.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

New UCSC student body president Alfredo Gama on campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How are you feeling about the start of the school year and what is it feeling like on campus?

Tlatoani Quetzalcoatl Xochipatl: I think students are very excited to see where they’re gonna go. Like, what club are they gonna join today? I was just walking and I heard a conversation with students who were saying, “Oh my gosh, did you go to Cornucopia (an event introducing clubs and resources)? What club are you gonna join?” So with COVID restrictions almost all the way off, I’m feeling that people are already starting to feel the freedom once again of assembly, and assembly is what students like to do. For example, clubs, parties, sororities, fraternities. That’s one thing that I feel really good about. So it feels good in terms of student life.

Then in terms of institution, I’m feeling a bit nervous. Just like my own experiences with professors — I’m also feeling nervous about administrators and how they’re going to receive and be perceptive of our goals, which should be their goals. I think we have a different view of budgets, and that clash is going to be — I hope it’s an artistic clash.

Lookout: What are your goals as president and how do you plan to carry out those goals?

Xochipatl: The first one is learning, supporting care over profits. And what do I mean by learning, supporting care over profits? Right now, a lot of students don’t have access to accommodations. We have a lot of students with disabilities, or because of COVID, don’t have the tools; whether it’s the actual textbooks to read, people can’t just read off a tablet, you know, people are literally, because of COVID, exhausted mentally, physically. So we need actual textbooks, we need actual resources to learn. That’s one thing. Another thing is support. Last time I checked before the pandemic, 10% of students were homeless. And just yesterday, my sister sent me an article from the L.A. Times. My friend Matthew was in that article.

And when I say support, I mean funding that and reorganizing the university’s budget, so instead of giving administrators raises, to put it into [student support]. Administrative raises are just the tip of the iceberg.

So I have a budget of $623,000 as SUA president, and I have the ability and I have the power to cut my salary [$10,800]. I don’t want it — I’m 26 years old, I can host tables and clean tables. And I know how to stand up for myself. These young kids are just getting into the workforce. So that’s the way you do it. Literally, if you have authority over a budget, if you’re not using it for the students, you have to go.

[I plan on carrying this out by] making sure that students are involved.

So, Oct. 4, we’re gonna table and do voter registration drives, all of [SUA volunteers] at Kresge [College]. We’re gonna organize a candidate forum on Oct. 13 at the Merrill Quad, I’m working on details as we speak with the College Democrats at UCSC.

Lookout: What is something you’re excited about this year?

Xochipatl: Hip Hop Congress. We’re restarting it after it had died off. So this quarter, our first thing is, we’re gonna do a hip-hop contest. We’re gonna give $500 to a student that comes up with the best music video that talks about diversity, equity and inclusion. We have a beat that everyone’s going to use. And then everything is up to the student. We’re gonna have a female, male, and nonbinary winner. I think that’s going to send a message to the administration: This is what we mean about diversity, equity and inclusion.

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