I just got back from the Bay Area where we went to the annual picnic to remember our friend Elena Castañeda who was killed three years ago (Aug. 9) when she was hit by a truck while riding her bike to work in Oakland. I want to write a little bit about her to remember her on this anniversary.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Elena traveled around the world for two years before settling in Berkeley and eventually attending college. She received her master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language in 1999. Elena did not grow up speaking Spanish, but she studied Spanish as an adult and became fluent in the language. Seeking to learn more about her cultural roots, she traveled in many Spanish-speaking countries, including her family’s country of origin, Mexico.
During her more than 30 years as a Berkeley resident, Elena worked at the organic urban farm in Berkeley, as a member of a collective that refinished wood floors, and as a college English teacher (teaching ESL students). She counseled high-schoolers while working at Job Corps and considered this her most rewarding job. She loved making a difference in the lives of the young people she touched with her work.
She lived in a housing cooperative and was a master at group process. She was a true political activist (who walked the talk) and was committed to social justice. For instance, she traveled to a remote region of Nicaragua to build houses for single mothers and their children. She was an environmentalist, who chose to ride her bike as often as possible in order to help prevent climate change. She lived lightly on the earth. She did not hesitate to speak up, even at the risk of endangering herself, when she witnessed a wrongful action.
She was greatly loved and is remembered by all who knew her for her generosity, her sense of humor, her commitment to peace and justice, her creativity, her green thumb, and her wisdom. She was Sudi’s godmother and she adored him. I sometimes think that she was such a fully evolved individual, that she had no more work to do on this plain and therefore it was time for her to leave, despite the grief she left in her wake. I set in motion the work to establish a scholarship fund in her name. We call it the Elena Fund. Last year we raised nearly $10,000, which was awarded to 5 hard-working Spanish-speaking young people in Berkeley to assist them with their college education. Our beautiful Elena, you are not forgotten, your work continues.