Former Olympic High School student Dina Cervantes remembers a time when she felt as though she had no shot at a successful future, but in the time since she received her degree, Cervantes has waded into the world of politics and she now hopes to secure a seat of her own in the California State Assembly.

Cervantes declared her intention to represent the 38th Assembly District, which includes parts of the Santa Clarita, San Fernando and Simi valley areas, back in December and has already garnered an endorsement from the California Latino Legislative Caucus. She said in an interview Thursday that she has found herself in the position she is today largely because of her experiences as a student here in Santa Monica.

Finding a voice

Once labeled as an at-risk youth, Cervantes attended Olympic High for a portion of her junior and senior years in high school.

“The reason I ended up at Olympic was because I was hanging with the wrong crowd and friends who were gang-affiliated,” she said. “And in high school, I was having a very hard time and I was looking for a connection so I learned to trust people who made me feel connected and welcome, but we were collectively going down the wrong path.”

Cervantes explained how Olympic High was not held in the same light as it is today due to its reputation as a place where the troubled kids went to have a “last-chance” opportunity.

“But interestingly enough, it was also a place where you couldn’t hide,” Cervantes said, naming two teachers who sat her down and said she’s too smart to throw away her future, “which really had me consider my life choices and reminded me there was so much more available.”

With the assistance and encouragement of a few Olympic teachers and staff, Cervantes started her first class at SMC while still enrolled in high school. She was also working her first job as a preschool teacher’s assistant so she opted to enroll in the college’s early childhood education program.

“When I started the classes, I had no idea what was happening in the state or anywhere else outside of my job, my boyfriend and having fun,” Cervantes said. “And really, I always tell people that I was a student who would go to class, do my work and get out of there as soon as I could.”

But that changed in 2002 when former Gov. Gray Davis proposed cuts to higher education, which forced Santa Monica College officials to consider ending some of the school’s vocational programs.

“What we saw and what we were experiencing at the college level was the fact that those cuts were directly going to be affecting working-class people and people of color,” Cervantes said. “And it was a moment where there was so much anger towards what was happening that we felt we had to do something. So I remember we started organizing students.”

Complaining to anybody who would hear them out, Cervantes and her fellow SMC students started protesting and soon connected with other community colleges that were facing similar cuts.

“In 2002, we took 15,000 students to the state capitol,” Cervantes said, and it was here where she experienced her political awakening.

“It really was the switch that taught me, personally, the value of my contribution and the importance of knowing I have my own voice,” Cervantes said. “I didn’t think my voice mattered before that — especially coming from where I was coming from.”

Cervantes would move on from SMC in 2005 and transfer to California State University, Northridge where she was elected chair of the California State Student Association.

After graduation, the former Corsair found herself in the renewable energy arena before becoming involved with the Democratic Party.

Today, Cervantes is a resident of the San Fernando Valley who has called Granada Hills home for more than 20 years, “but my work has taken me all across Southern California,” the candidate said, listing the multitude of political positions she has previously held.

In 2014-2015, Cervantes opted to take time off from work after losing a child while pregnant, but upon her return to the workforce, she went to work as a Campaign Manager for Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo.

After a successful campaign, “We dropped off Wendy in Sacramento on January 3rd,” Cervantes said, mentioning how she then headed down to Long Beach to begin her job as chief of staff for Long Beach City Councilmember Jeannine Pearce less than 72 hours later.

Cervantes left Pearce’s staff in March of 2019 and was pursuing a seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees when she received an invitation to consider an Assembly seat left vacant.

“So I jumped in, filed the paperwork and here we are,” Cervantes said, sharing her excitement at the possibility of potentially impacting education, the environment and the working-class.

“I think about my path a lot and it’s funny because I’m still that kid that was at the continuation high school,” Cervantes said. “I still have moments when I can’t believe that I’ve had the privilege to do the work I’ve gotten to do, so I want to share with students that there’s so much possibility out there — and our current environment and circumstances don’t have to dictate where we end up.”

Cervantes added she never thought she’d find herself in the position she is in today, “but everything I’ve done in politics is because I jumped in and took the chance.”

brennon@smdp.com

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