ALAMEDA | Trish Herrera Spencer had been told that she couldn’t do something so many times before she pulled off the mammoth upset of Alameda’s incumbent mayor in November that the latest round of naysayers was almost imperceptible to her ears. As a second child of five children who arrived in the South Gate neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1960s just as a wave of white flight was quickly transforming the city, change came quick for the family. They were the first Latino family to move into what was a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood. That didn’t last long, as Caucasians fled to be replaced by more Latino and African-American families. Riots in nearby Watts soon erupted in the distance.
“There was racism; I grew up with that,” Spencer said. “The area changed rapidly in a short amount of time.” Spencer’s father struggled to keep the family afloat. At times, she recalls, they subsisted on food stamps. Her father worked many odd jobs during the time. “I rarely saw him,” she recently recalled. Eventually he became an electrician, but Spencer holds a poignant memory of her father reading the Sunday newspaper every weekend. “I only remember him reading the classifieds, always looking for a job.” It became clear to Spencer that, to succeed in this environment, she would have to work harder just to compete.
She immersed herself in her school work, became president of her high school’s honor society, and led other academic clubs. Spencer would became the only child among her siblings to go directly from high school to college. Her bid for secondary schooling, however, represented what would later be a recurring theme in Spencer’s life. Call it a propensity for being overlooked in spite of her credentials or merely passed over for nebulous reasons; Spencer’s ability to succeed despite the hurdle placed before her started with a high school guidance counselor who attempted to dissuade her from applying to the University of California.
During lunchtime, a counselor invited a number of seniors to his office to begin filling out applications to the U.C. system. When Spencer, who possessed at the time a 3.67 grade point average, approached the door, the counselor stopped her. “He looked at me and said, ‘You can’t come in.’ ” She later recalls him pointing to specific students, mostly Caucasian, and told Spencer, “If you were like this one and that one, then we would think you were U.C. material.” The local community college was a better fit, he told Spencer. Nonetheless, she filled out university applications on her own on the dining room floor. She enrolled at U.C. Santa Barbara. Spencer, in fact, was U.C. material. She later graduated with a degree in sociology and later enrolled in law school, eventually passing the Bar Exam on her first attempt.
“Outlier is one word you can use to describe me,” Spencer said. “It’s a good thing to be an outlier. What that can mean is that you exceed the odds. You go beyond what society expects from you.”