On Saturday night, USF celebrated and welcomed alumni from the University to come and mingle with previous graduating classes members at the Alumni Awards Gala. The well-dressed guests arrived at the large structure that sat on top of the grass on Welch Field, ready to celebrate the accomplishments that fellow alumni have achieved. One of the alumni recognized was Carlos Menchaca ‘04, who received his degree in Performing Arts and Social Justice. Today, Menchaca serves as a city council member for the 38th District of the New York City Council.
Menchaca, who was born in El Paso, Texas, was the first Mexican-American elected to public office in New York City and was the first openly gay New York City Council member representing Brooklyn. At the gala, Menchaca was honored with the Father Stephen J. Privett Living The Mission Award.
Menchaca serves as the Chair of the Committee on Immigration for New York City and a member of the LGBT Caucus, and was recognized by USF for his efforts to generate funding for The New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), the largest public defender program for undocumented immigrants in the nation. The award also recognized that he authored, introduced, and passed legislation to create the first municipal identification card program, the first of its kind in the United States.
Menchaca’s efforts for social justice also got him an invitation to attend an intimate meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit to New York City, where they discussed immigration in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.
On the day of the gala, Menchaca was invited to the Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series where he addressed a crowd of fellow alumni about the importance of USF’s educational and religious values, and how as alumni they have been able to ‘Change the World From Here’.
“One of the great things about USF is that people are impacted by the education, and not because they came here. They’re impacted by the work that we do in our communities, through our jobs, through our churches, through our relationships,” said Menchaca. He continued by talking about the impact the Erasmus Community at USF has had on helping him make decisions throughout his early professional career and even through his current professional career.
“It gave me a framework, it gave me practice, it gave me a family, and it gave me a compass. It gave me something that I’ve been using today to understand how to make decisions in this world through the work that I am doing,” said Menchaca. Students who are part of the Erasmus Community learn theoretical information from the classroom experience, discuss the material as a community and directly apply information and ideas through various community-based research projects.
Menchaca says his political aspirations began around the age of seven, when he met a congressman from Texas who had gained a reputation for not doing enough for the community of El Paso, Texas and its surrounding communities. Menchaca says that he confronted the congressman by telling him that he would take his job, and ever since then the passion for activism has stuck. “I feel like I have always been a natural activist. I have always been able to hold people in such positions to a very high standard, and if they aren’t doing their job I don’t mind calling them out on it,” said Menchaca.
Even though he got the opportunity to practice student government in high school, Menchaca says his first real exposure to policymaking was at USF, when he was elected ASUSF President. “Seeing how effective I could be from within the system and changing it from inside, in partnership with the people that are pressuring the government to make those changes, made me really want to make change on a much larger stage,” said Menchaca.
One of those partnerships he forged while in ASUSF Senate was with former President of the University, Rev. Stephen A. Privett, S.J., who Menchaca continues to maintain a close relationship with. Menchaca calls Privett, “a mentor, a spiritual director, and a friend.”
The two met at a rally held on Harney Plaza and Menchaca says he still remembers the warmth with which Privett demonstrated on that first encounter. Soon after, Privett and Menchaca got to spend a lot of time together collaborating on drafting the Mission, Vision, and Values Document that guides the University today. Menchaca says that the relationship with Privett was so strong that they would frequently dine together, and have him over for parties at Menchaca’s apartment in Loyola Village.
Menchaca, however, does not see himself holding his city council seat much longer. Not because he is not confident about garnering the votes, but because he believes that elected positions should always be fluctuating with candidates from a wide range of age, race, and sex.
He calls on the current students of USF who consider themselves activists or political fans to challenge and strive for such positions. “It’s the young people that have that activism bug and with that fresh mentality they’ll have all the necessary tools needed to run our government,” Menchaca said.