On paper, Ricky Rodas covers immigration and small business for The Oaklandside, but over the past year, he’s written about a lot of other topics, from the ecology of Lake Merritt to gun violence to sports.
The Oaklandside’s news editor Darwin BondGraham spoke with Rodas about his work in 2022 and one big theme emerged—a lot of stories about The Town are actually tales of global migration and culture.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ricky, I was looking back at your stories this year. The first story you did was about a cafe owned by a Queer/transmasculine Filipina who combats xenophobia through art and more. Later, you wrote about Iu Mien elders who garden in Fruitvale, and then you had a story about a Bolivian tailor in North Oakland. Many of your stories feature immigrants and show how intrinsic they are to our city. What role do you see immigrants playing in Oakland?
As long as immigrants have been in Oakland, they’ve contributed vital services. You mentioned a story I did about Penny Baldado, who owns Cafe Gabriela. They do something as simple as serving the sandwiches to downtown workers Oakland, but that’s very crucial because a lot of people go down there and they need something to eat. Cafe Gabriela is a queer, Filipinx-owned cafe and Penny sees the simple act of running their shop as a means of combating xenophobia. Penny also named their cafe after a 18th century Filipina revolutionary, so there’s that added element as well.
I recently did a story about Arth & Son, a 145-year-old auto repair shop that was started by a German immigrant from France. The original owner started out repairing horse-drawn carriages, and then future generations went on to repair cars. Immigrants fill lots of roles in Oakland when others may choose not to.
During this pandemic we’re still living through, we’ve unfortunately seen a lot of these businesses close. For example, there was this beloved cafe downtown called Anula’s. The woman who ran it, Anula, is Sri Lankan, and she’d built up this big base of loyal customers who dined there for lunch. Well, these customers came out in droves to support her during her last week. They really loved this spot. Her cafe was not just a place to eat but a place where community and friendships were formed.
You’ve been writing about this one restaurant, La Perla, for a few years now. Most recently, you covered a fundraiser they held to help rebuild Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona. Is this something you see a lot of in Oakland, businesses with strong ties to communities in other countries?
Whenever someone moves away from their place of origin, whether Puerto Rico or Sri Lanka or Afghanistan, they’re going to try to remain connected somehow. That’s especially true when a crisis happens.
I was recently working on a story about the human rights abuses that are going on in Iran and East Bay Iranians who are trying to help the protestors in their homeland who are quite literally putting their lives on the line. These people also happen to be business owners, or have been business owners here in Oakland.
In the case of La Perla, 2017’s Hurricane Maria was tragic and then followed by Hurricane Fiona this year. These storms deepend the historical inequities present on the island. And folks like La Perla owner Jose Ortiz, or the band Sazon Libre, created these fundraisers to do whatever they can to help their people out.
When you are connected to a community, when you’re connected to a diaspora, no matter where you are, you are going to feel the pain that the diaspora is feeling. You’re going to try your best to remedy that from wherever you are, and I think that’s what I try to tap into through my work as best as I can.
Let’s talk about another story you worked on that highlighted how Oakland exists as a hub in a globalized world. Along with Oaklandside Managing Editor Jacob Simas you wrote about the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost state. What caused you to want to pursue this reporting?
Well first, I think the credit goes to one of the main sources that we highlight in the story, Daniel Hagos. He’s lived in Oakland for a few years. Through Daniel we were able to connect with the cafe owner, Adey Hagos, and other locals who have been rallying against a genocide that is happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
It’s a really complex story that took a long time to report. But I wanted to do this story because I am also part of a diaspora that is all too familiar with state violence. I’m part of the El Salvadoran diaspora and we know what it’s like to experience civil war, experience violence, and then have to live everyday with the emotional and psychological fallout.
To see what was going on in Ethiopia, I understood right away that this was a local story. A global conflict will affect a community wherever they choose to settle. That’s what we’ve seen play out in Oakland because there’s so many different kinds of Ethiopian ethnic groups and all of them have different opinions about this war.
Again, I want to give all the credit to our sources because they’re the ones who spearheaded this. I think where we as The Oaklandside can give ourselves credit is that I saw there was value in telling a local story even if there wasn’t a clear news peg attached to it. The story was still timely because this community in Oakland is silently dealing with this immense pain, and I think as a hyper-local news outlet, we had to spotlight that.
Another project you’ve worked on this year is this series that highlights small businesses in specific neighborhoods. In the Laurel District, you wrote about a salon, bike shop, and crafts store. What are some things you’ve learned doing this kind of hyper-local business reporting?
Oakland is a fascinating city because it has so many different micro-towns. You get this “town within a town” experience by going to certain business districts like Laurel or Montclair or Fruitvale.
I think that’s one of the biggest things that I learned is that you can have very unique experiences in these Oakland neighborhoods. Those unique experiences are often centered on the small businesses because they serve as cultural hubs. To tell these stories, you have to focus on spotlighting the neighborhoods through the businesses.
In 2022, violent crime continued to be a concern of Oakland residents. Can you talk about how this impacted the business community?
Lots of Oakland shops are prone to robberies, break-ins, and vandalism. Shop owners tend to have a more police-focused perspective on public safety issues. They advocate for more policing and I think that comes from a place of wanting to protect their assets and their property. Lots of these places are mom-and-pop shops and they’re trying to quite literally defend their livelihood. A good amount of these owners grew up here and or live in the neighborhoods they serve, and so that’s why they care deeply about public safety issues.
Shop owners have also been victims of the violence. One of the co-owners of Lucky Three Seven, Artgel Anabo, or “Jun” as he was affectionately known, was shot and killed right outside of his restaurant. His death hit the Fruitvale-Dimond community hard. Jun was connected to the small business community so his death was felt through the city as well.
Some business owners want a more militarized version of policing—officers all over Oakland and very strict patrols. Others want to focus on hiring officers who are from Oakland, and they want neighborhood beat cops and foot patrols. Some of the complaints I’ve heard is that they don’t want cops who are just walking by and not saying hi to anybody.
The World Cup’s going on right now. You’ve done a little reporting about this too. What are some of the diaspora communities in Oakland rooting for their national teams?
In the almost three years that I’ve been reporting on small businesses in Oakland, I’ve come across so many different diasporas. Some of the countries that are represented in Oakland, unfortunately, 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. There’s a large Mexican community in Oakland but their team didn’t make it that far.
Our World Cup coverage was an exercise in trying to find these diasporas, including those of nations who don’t have as big a community in Oakland as say Mexicans or Ethiopians. A perfect example would be the article I wrote about Oakland Moroccans finding community through this year’s cup. There isn’t a big Moroccan community in Oakland or the Bay Area. There are slivers of people spread throughout the Bay. That story was interesting because it was about the creation of a community. It was about everybody in the Moroccan diaspora here in Oakland and the Bay Area understanding that there aren’t clear connections. But the World Cup gave them a vehicle to find each other because their country was quite literally making history for many different reasons.
Even though they lost against France, Morocco made history by becoming the first African nation to make it to the men’s World Cup semi-finals since the tournament started in 1930. The national squad also obtained symbolic victories by beating Belgium in the round of 32, defeating Spain in the round of 16, and eliminating Portugal in the quarter-finals. These are three European nations that invaded and exploited Africa for hundreds of years, including Morocco.
The way that the cup helped to bring different diasporic communities together was also evident in another story I wrote which highlighted this Argentine business owner Javier Sandis. When Sandis moved here in 2001 because of Argentina’s economic crisis, he had never heard of Oakland, but he came here to play soccer on a scholarship.
Over time, he found himself invested in the community and he started establishing restaurants. He created a space for himself to work and just make a living. He even made a parklet because he wanted to celebrate the World Cup while he sold empanadas. He inadvertently created a space for Argentinians all over the Bay Area to come. I think that the World Cup stories were very special because they highlighted the creation of communities for people who otherwise didn’t know their people were here.
On a totally different note, you wrote some interesting stories about Lake Merritt this past year, starting in January when you covered salmon sightings and then in August when there was a toxic algae bloom. Why do Oakland residents love the lake so much?
Those are examples of stories where I like to branch out from my usual beat. Covering immigrant communities and doing stories about business policy issues are my bread and butter but I am generally a nerd and am curious about so many different things, particularly nature.
Oaklanders really care about the lake for lots of reasons. One, it’s a beautiful, scenic location that serves as a meeting point for everyone in the city. Two, the lake is a diverse ecosystem that’s been around for thousands of years. It’s the U.S.’s first wildlife refuge and I think biology enthusiasts take pride in that.
I’ve become The Oaklandside’s unofficial fish reporter and I’ve found myself in that role because I am really interested in how Oaklanders care for the city’s natural environment and its unique ecosystems. I don’t know how many Lake Merritt stories I’ve written since I started my job with The Oaklandside almost three years ago, but it’s a lot!