'In Solidarity, People!': Activist With Autism Works to Ensure Nobody in Community Left Behind

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Héctor Ramírez (left) with a food pantry volunteer at Fish of West Valley in Chatsworth, California. (Héctor Ramírez)

For Héctor Ramírez, routine is important. He has rituals that are comforting to him, like taking his service dog on two walks every day.

“I have to say hello to people,” Ramírez said. “And I have like a certain number, like 30 people, I have to say hello. And so when I'm walking around, I do that with my neighbors. So everybody thinks that I'm really sociable, but I'm actually very introverted. I'm actually really shy.”

Ramírez has a round, expressive face and kind eyes. He is autistic and hard of hearing. He’s 45, and he lives with his mom in a rent-controlled mobile home park in Chatsworth, in the San Fernando valley.

The entrance Héctor's home, Sunburst Park, where many disabled and elderly people live. (Héctor Ramírez)

Now, because of social distancing, there’s no one to say hi to on his walks.

“So I just had to really make new routines and remember my cultural values of respecting my elders and community. And, you know, just holding on to those things in every way that I can,” Ramírez said.

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Instead, he waves to his neighbors out the window. And he leaves peanut butter outside at night for skunks. He said the animals represent humility in his indigenous Tongva culture.

Serving His Community During a Crisis

Many of Ramírez’s neighbors are elderly and disabled. So late in March when Californians were starting to panic about the coronavirus, he posted fliers on folks’ doors, asking them to reach out if they needed food delivered. Ramírez posted a video on YouTube where he’s in his living room, showing the fliers and explaining the food insecurity affecting his community.

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“With everybody hoarding and panicking right now, they made things a lot more difficult for people who are more vulnerable right now, which is our seniors and our disabled,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing, instead of panicking — which I am — but this is how I’m working with my anxiety.”

Ramírez said that he doesn’t like feeling helpless. Before the pandemic, he often volunteered at his neighborhood food pantry. He’s on the board of directors for the National Disability Rights Network and for Disability Rights California.

Héctor Ramírez (far right) with his fellow pantry volunteers. (Héctor Ramírez)

But now, his work is focused on the people around him. Many of his neighbors responded to his fliers saying they couldn’t get to the grocery store. So he’s delivering meals to them.

“That’s what I’m doing to take care of my family and my community. In solidarity, people!” Ramírez said.

Overcoming an Isolated Past

At first, sheltering in place weirdly reminded Ramírez of his childhood, growing up in Camarillo State Mental Hospital in Ventura Country. He was sent there when he was 4 years old. Then, the Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Act became California law in 1977, and it stated that people with developmental disabilities have the right to services so they can live an independent life. Because of this law and changing attitudes about autism, Ramírez was able to transition back to living with his family when he was 14 years old.

Now, that building that was once the mental hospital is California State University Channel Islands. And Ramírez and his mom are living together, navigating their relationship in close quarters.

“We've ridden a roller coaster of emotions and moods,” Ramírez said. “There're days and times where we both cope with it really good and there's times where we both really struggle to the point that, you know, we can lose our tempers.”

On May 22, Ramírez sent me an email that said, "I feel so crappy right now, my aunt died yesterday afternoon bc of this horrible virus." Now, as he is mourning a loss, Ramírez is grateful he and his mom get to spend this time together — time that was taken away from him as a kid.

Disabled and an Essential Volunteer

Ramírez said the disabled community is often left behind when it comes to disasters, citing PG&E power shutoffs, wildfires and pandemics. But for his whole adult life, Ramírez worked as an activist, lobbying for better access and social safety nets for people with disabilities.

“I think this is one of the ways in which we contribute to society,” Ramírez said. “We show people that even as we keep going, they have to keep going.”

Recently, Ramírez went to downtown Los Angeles to be tested for COVID-19. He told me that on the way to the bus stop he was anxious, but then he saw eagles flying above his house, which reminded him of his ancestors.

Ramírez had been feeling sick, and he wanted to know if he had the virus. A few days later, his COVID-19 test came back negative. For him, it’s a sign: to keep helping people.