Pictured: Celina Zacarias. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

In our first piece in a new series called VC Voices, we talk with Celina Zacarias of Oxnard. She emigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old and her parents came to the country as farmworkers in the Bracero Program. She grew up helping her mother pick strawberries. 

Today Zacarias serves as a Commissioner for the Port of Hueneme and is the senior director of community and government relations at California State University, Channel Islands, where she advocates for additional funding and support for the university. 

Here she shares her views about growing up in the La Colonia neighborhood in Oxnard, how things have changed or stayed the same, and offers some advice to young Oxnard residents. 

VC Reporter: Where in Ventura County do you currently live? And how do you “self- identify”? 

I live in Oxnard. [I identify as] Mexican – I was born in Michoacán, Mexico. My father and grandfather were part of the Bracero Program and my father brought us to the U.S. when I was 3 years old.

Celina Zacarias with her mother in Oxnard. Photo submitted.

What is a lasting memory that you have of growing up and living in the La Colonia neighborhood? 

The people…,we were truly a community of friends, parents, brothers, sisters, everyone took care of each other. It was very common to have my mom send the neighbor some homemade flour tortillas and vice versa, there was a lot of exchanging of food. 

What is something people might find surprising about that neighborhood or your experience growing up there?

We all knew each other and the neighborhood was very safe. Many of us from the neighborhood still keep in touch with each other.

As someone who has grown up in Oxnard, what has changed? 

More shopping centers. I used to love driving down Rose Avenue all the way from Saticoy to the Rose Park area and taking in the calming smell of the eucalyptus trees. 

What remains the same? 

The diversity of people in the city, which I love. 

Do you have any hopes for the area and residents looking into the future? 

I would love to see the residents of Oxnard and the surrounding areas take advantage of the opportunity to pursue their education, with CSU [California State University] Channel Islands here in the county, this is very much more within reach.

What are some things that you think have improved for immigrants? What is something that still needs attention or improvement? What do you think is different today for those immigrating from Mexico?

Some worker’s rights have improved. More worker’s rights and fair compensation is needed. The cost of living has increased dramatically. 

You gave a talk titled “The Bracero Program, and its impact on my life.” What is a major impact you carry from being a child of the Bracero program? 

Growing up in a farmworker family, it teaches you a very strong work ethic. My parents were amazing, how they raised a family of five kids and two adults (total of seven) and saved money to buy a home is beyond me. I did not know we were poor until I completed the financial aid forms to go to University of California, Santa Barbara and they said we were not only low income, we were very low income. Who knew we were poor? We always had a place to sleep, food on the table and clothes on our back. Mom and Dad never had any debt aside from the mortgage payment. Via this example, I learned the importance of living within your means. 

Celina Zacarias being sworn in as Commissioner for the Port of Hueneme.

You made a career shift from the banking/finance world to higher education. What is a major difference in the practices/ethos of those sectors?

I have been very fortunate to have truly enjoyed two amazing careers doing completely different things. Banking/finance taught me how Corporate America worked and higher education has given me the opportunity to learn how the public sector works. Not having a finance background, I had to teach myself banking/finance and when I got to higher education, I had to learn and adjust to a whole new work environment and set of practices. 

Having come from the private sector…I was under the assumption that because I personally valued public education so did everyone else, because this is our future workforce. I assumed that our state legislators also felt that same and were properly providing the CSU and UC the funds needed. I had a shock of reality when I took my first Budget Advocacy trip to Sacramento and realized that I was having to convince some of our representatives the importance of properly funding the CSU. The CSU’s operating budget has two main funding sources: the state General ​​Fund and student tuition and fees and in order to keep higher education affordable, we are constantly advocating for General Fund dollars, we do not have the guaranteed funding stream that is available to K-14.

What did you learn or carry from the banking world that serves you and your work today?

Because my job as senior director of community and government relations requires me to engage a lot with the external business community, my understanding and knowledge of how businesses operate and the sense of urgency learned from my years on banking/finance has helped me tremendously in my role at CSU Channel Islands. 

Has anything surprised or really challenged you in the world of higher education? 

The number one surprise I encountered in higher education is when I learned how the CSU is funded, or not. Knowing how education is funded has transformed my life; this made me want to excel even more in my job as director of community and government relations whose primary focus is advocate for funding for higher education.

As a harbor commissioner, how do you view your role? What is a pressing task/project the commission is dealing with right now or in the near future?

Being very involved throughout the county, state and nation, I think I bring a very unique perspective to the commission beyond the boundaries of the cities of Port Hueneme and Oxnard. We are about to embark on our Port 2030 Strategic Plan workshops; stay tuned.

In thinking about the local economy, what do you think is needed in our area for economic improvement? And what are the biggest challenges?

Good paying jobs are needed. At this time, the impacts of COVID on businesses, families and homelessness are the biggest challenges.

You travelled a lot as a student. How did those experiences influence your education and your life and work over your career and today? 

Traveling opened the world to me in so many different ways: the culture, the people, the ways of life, the politics. It made me appreciate in so many ways things that we take for granted here in this country.

Who are your heroes? 

My parents . . . were and although they have passed away, they are and will always continue to be my heroes. 

What inspires you? 

The joy on the faces of the parents, especially farmworkers, on commencement day!

Today, what is your advice/guidance for first generation college students, particularly Mexican immigrants?

Get an education. Keep and polish your bilingualism, always remember where you come from because only then will you know where you’re going. Surround yourself with people of different backgrounds and mindsets, that is where you will experience the most growth. 

Any advice specifically for young women in high school or starting college? 

Don’t doubt yourself. I know it may seem impossible, but trust me, it’s not.