Eric Quezada, 45, a critical figure in the affordable housing movement in the Mission, died early this morning at his home in Bernal Heights.
Quezada, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, moved to the Mission with his family in 1971 after their San Fernando Valley home was destroyed in an earthquake. In the ’90s he emerged as the center of many social justice movements throughout the city, especially those involving affordable housing, land-use issues and immigrant rights.
He was a founding member of the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, and at the time of his death was the executive director of Dolores Street Community Services.
Only those close to Quezada knew he had cancer. In 2004 he was diagnosed with alveolar soft-part sarcoma, a rare, slow-moving cancer that afflicts mostly children and young adults. Eighty percent of those diagnosed with it are dead within five years. Quezada would survive for seven.
During that time he ran a grassroots campaign for supervisor of District 9 in 2008; had a daughter, Ixchel, now 3; married another community organizer, Lorena Melgarejo; was elected to the Democratic County Central Committee; and mentored a generation of community activists.
“He always had a lot of folks around him and was always building a strong movement with strong leaders,” said Charlie Sciammas of the environmental justice organization PODER, who worked closely with Quezada at the Mission Housing Development Corporation. “He was building something for the long term. It’s not just one person, it’s many that build it together and work in those struggles and those movements.”
During that time Quezada was also, according to Oscar Grande of PODER, a notorious fiend for salsa music and an avid saxophone player. “Particularly salsa dura, a lot of the ’70s stuff,” said Grande. “He was purist in that sense.” The two DJ’d together at benefits for numerous nonprofits and progressive candidates. “We worked hard together and we played just as hard. He was a salsa animal.”
Quezada lost the election for supervisor to David Campos, but the two became close friends. “The two people whose advice I trust the most are Tom Ammiano’s and Eric Quezada’s,” said Campos, who would often confide in Quezada about issues going before the Board of Supervisors. “He is rare in politics. The more you get to know him, the more you like him and the more you respect him.”
“When I think of the Mission District, I think of Eric and all that he gave to those of us working here, to those families, to make it a more just place,” said Maria Poblet, executive director of the housing rights nonprofit Just Cause.
John Avalos, District 11 supervisor and mayoral candidate, recalled a rally held at Horace Mann Middle School in 2000 to protest the Planning Commission’s policies during the dot-com boom.
“Five hundred people were raising their hands,” said Avalos. “It showed him as a leader. Someone who can move a crowd. He had that kind of influence.”
Eventually, chemotherapy wasn’t enough to halt the spread of Quezada’s cancer. He left for Germany a month ago to seek experimental treatment, but returned when that, too, failed. He died at home, surrounded by his mother, brother and wife.
News of his death has many community organizers and local progressive politicians grieving for a man who, they say, always put other people and the causes he was fighting for before himself. Many organizers said they will continue with the work Quezada started. As Melgarejo posted on her Facebook page: “Eric Quezada PRESENTE! La lucha sigue!”
Poblet recalled talking to Quezada recently about her quest to increase the influence of people of color in elections. Quezada was having trouble breathing — his lungs had been damaged during treatment — but all he wanted to do, said Poblet, was talk politics.
“I don’t want to talk about doctors,” he told her. “I want to talk about building the social movement. We should do this again and we should do this more often.”
“And that,” she said, “was the last time I saw him.”