On paper, Ricky Rodas covers immigration and small business for The Oaklandside, but over the past year he’s written on a host of other topics, from the ecology of Lake Merritt to gun violence to sports.
Aucklandside’s news editor, Darwin BondGraham, spoke to Rodas about his work in 2022, and a big theme emerged – that many of the stories about The Town are actually stories of global immigration and culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ricky, I reviewed your story from this year. The first story you did was about a cafe owned by a queer/transgender male Filipina who was fighting xenophobia through art and more. Later, you wrote about Iu Mien gardening in Fruitvale elsewhere, and then you had a story about a Bolivian tailor in North Auckland. Many of your stories feature immigrants and demonstrate their intrinsic impact on our cities. What role do you think immigrants play in Auckland?
As long as immigrants have been in Auckland, they have provided vital services. You mentioned the story I wrote about Penny Baldado, the owner of Cafe Gabriela. They do simple things like serving sandwiches to workers in downtown Oakland, but it’s very important because a lot of people go there and they need something to eat. At Cafe Gabriela, a queer cafe owned by Filipinx, Penny sees the simple act of running their store as a means of combating xenophobia. Penny also adds to that by naming their cafe after an 18th century Filipino revolutionary.
I recently wrote a story about Arth & Son, a 145-year-old auto repair shop started by a German immigrant from France. The original owner started by repairing horse carriages, and later generations also repaired carriages. Immigrants play many roles in Oakland when others may choose not to.
During this pandemic, we are still living in it, and unfortunately, we have seen many of these businesses go out of business. For example, there is a well-loved cafe downtown called Anula’s. The lady who runs the restaurant, Anula, is a Sri Lankan, and she has built up a huge loyal base of customers who come there for lunch. Well, these customers came out in droves to support her during her final week. They really like this place. More than just a place to eat, her café is a place where community and friendship are formed.
You’ve been writing about the restaurant La Perla for several years. Recently, you reported on their fundraiser to help rebuild Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona. Is that something you see a lot in Oakland? The business has strong ties to communities in other countries?
Whenever someone leaves their homeland, whether it’s Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka, or Afghanistan, they try to stay connected in some way. This is especially true when a crisis strikes.
I was recently writing a story about the ongoing human rights abuses in Iran and Iranians in the East Bay trying to help protesters in their hometowns who were literally risking their lives. These people also happen to be business owners, or have been business owners in Oakland.
In the case of La Perla, Hurricane Maria in 2017 was a tragedy, and then Hurricane Fiona this year. These storms have deepened the historical inequalities that existed on the island. People like La Perla owner Jose Ortiz or the Sazon Libre band start these fundraisers to do what they can to help their employees out.
When you have a connection to a community, when you have a connection to a diaspora, wherever you are, you feel the pain that the diaspora feels. Wherever you are, you’re going to do your best to figure this out, and I think that’s what I try to dig out as best I can through my work.
Let’s talk about another story you’ve been involved in that highlights how Auckland exists as a hub in a globalized world. Together with Auckland Borders editor-in-chief Jacob Simas, you write about the conflict in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray state. What made you want to do this report?
First, I think it’s thanks to one of the main sources we’ve highlighted in the story, Daniel Hagos. He lived in Oakland for several years. Through Daniel, we were able to connect with café owner Adey Hagos and other locals who have been rallying against the genocide in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
It’s a very complex story that will take a long time to report. But I wanted to write this story because I was also part of a diaspora who was very familiar with state violence. I’m part of the Salvadoran diaspora, and we know what it’s like to go through civil war, violence, and then have to live with the emotional and psychological aftermath every day.
Seeing what happened in Ethiopia, I immediately understood that this was a local story. Global conflicts will affect the communities they choose to settle in. That’s what we’re seeing in Oakland because there are many different ethnic groups in Ethiopia and they all have different views on this war.
Again, I want to give all credit to our sources for being the ones leading the charge. I think where we can do ourselves credit as Oaklandside is that I see value in telling local stories even without an explicit journalistic hook. This story is still timely because this community in Oakland is silently dealing with this great pain, and I think that as a hyperlocal news outlet, we have to pay attention to that.
Another project you’re involved with this year is this series, which highlights small businesses in specific neighborhoods. In the Laurel area, you write about salons, bike shops, and craft shops. What have you learned while doing this kind of hyperlocal business reporting?
Auckland is a fascinating city because of its many different miniature towns. Go to certain business districts like Laurel or Montclair or Fruitvale and you’ll get this “city within a city” experience.
I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you can have very unique experiences in these Oakland neighborhoods. These unique experiences are often centered around small businesses because they are cultural hubs. To tell these stories, you must focus on bringing community into focus through your business.
Violent crime continues to be a concern for Oakland residents in 2022. Can you talk about how this has impacted the business world?
Many businesses in Auckland are vulnerable to robbery, break-ins and vandalism. Shopkeepers tend to pay more attention to the police’s perspective when it comes to public safety. They’re advocating for more regulation, and I think it’s for the purpose of protecting their assets and property. Many of these places are mom-and-pop businesses trying to defend their livelihoods. Many of these owners grew up here, or live in the communities they serve, which is why they care deeply about public safety issues.
Shopkeepers were also victims of the violence. One of Lucky Three Seven’s co-owners, Artgel Anabo, or “Jun” as he was affectionately known, was shot dead outside his restaurant. His death has hit the Fruitvale-Dimond community hard. Jun was connected to the small business world, so word of his death spread throughout the city as well.
Some business owners want more militarized police – police and very strict patrols all over Auckland. Others want to focus on recruiting officers from Oakland, who want neighborhood police and foot patrols. Some of the complaints I’ve heard are that they don’t want cops who just pass by without saying hello to anyone.
The World Cup is about to start. You also did some reporting on this. Which diaspora communities in Auckland support their national team?
In the almost three years I’ve been covering small businesses in Oakland, I’ve met many different expats. Unfortunately, some countries in Auckland did not qualify for this year’s men’s World Cup. We’re talking about Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Yemen, China, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and more. Oakland has a big Mexican community, but their team didn’t make it that far.
Our World Cup coverage is trying to find people in this diaspora, including countries that don’t have as big a community in Oakland as Mexicans or Ethiopians. A perfect example is the article I wrote about the Oakland Moroccans finding community through this year’s Cup. There is no large Moroccan community in Oakland or the Bay Area. The whole bay is full of people. This story is interesting because it’s about community creation. This is something that everyone in the Moroccan diaspora here in Oakland and the Bay Area understands that there is no clear connection. But the World Cup gave them a vehicle to find each other as their country made history for many different reasons.
Despite losing to France, Morocco made history by becoming the first African nation to reach the men’s World Cup semi-finals since the World Cup began in 1930. The national team also achieved a symbolic victory over Belgium in the round of 32, Spain in the round of 16, and Portugal in the quarter-finals. These are three European countries that have invaded and exploited Africa for hundreds of years, including Morocco.
The way the Cup helps to bring together different diaspora communities is also evident in another story I wrote, which highlights the Argentinian business owner Javier Santis. When Sandys moved here in 2001 because of Argentina’s economic crisis, he had never heard of Oakland, but he came here to play on a scholarship.
Over time, he found himself investing in the community and starting restaurants. He created a space for himself to work and earn a living. He even made a little park because he wanted to celebrate the World Cup while selling empanadas. He inadvertently created a space for Argentines throughout the Bay Area. I think the World Cup stories are very special because they highlight creating community for people who didn’t know they were here.
In other words, you wrote some interesting stories about Lake Merritt last year, starting with salmon sightings in January, followed by toxic algae blooms in August. Why do Aucklanders love this lake so much?
These are examples of stories that I like to branch off from my usual rhythms. Covering immigrant communities and reporting on business policy issues is my livelihood, but I’m usually a nerd and curious about a lot of different things, especially nature.
Oaklanders really care about the lake for many reasons. One, it’s a beautiful scenic spot and a meeting point for everyone in the city. Second, the lake is a diverse ecosystem that has existed for thousands of years. This is the first wildlife sanctuary in the United States, and I think biology lovers would be proud of it.
I’ve become Aucklandside’s unofficial fish reporter, a role I found myself taking on because I’m very interested in how Aucklanders care about the city’s natural environment and its unique ecosystem. I don’t know how many stories I’ve written about Lake Merritt since I started working on Oaklandside about three years ago, but it’s been a lot!