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In his native El Salvador, Jorge Nunez fought for years—often at the risk of being beaten or killed by government “death squads”—for justice for low-income people. Now Nunez, who first came to the United States in 1980, is drawing on his earlier experiences to work on a new dream: empowering families in underserved neighborhoods in Los Angeles to access care for their pets through the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program.
An outreach program with additional teams in Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia, and that mentors local groups across the country, PFL seeks to reach people and pets in underserved communities by providing resources and information that have long been lacking.
Hired as a consultant in 2012, Nunez became the program’s first community organizer in Los Angeles and helped PFL perfect its boots-on-the-ground strategies for reaching the city’s largely Latino low-income communities through such activities as walking neighborhood blocks and signing up pets for spay/neuter, says PFL program manager Kenny Lamberti. Nunez helped organize community outreach events that provided free pet vaccinations and drew hundreds of people who lined up despite heavy rain.
Alana Yañez, manager of PFL Los Angeles, worked with Nunez a few years ago on the staff of then-California Assembly member Kevin de Leon. When they organized health and job fairs, Nunez’s connections in the immigrant community helped draw hundreds of people, and Yañez wanted to bring those skills to PFL. “When I took the job with Pets for Life, I knew we needed a strong organizer to get the [Los Angeles] program up and running,” Yañez says. “Jorge is an amazing organizer.”
Yañez credits Nunez with having “a very strong moral compass” that helped him grasp the inequalities that PFL is addressing. “He knows that there’s a huge inequity in terms of how underserved communities get access to good pet care,” she says. “There is no vet in Boyle Heights.”
Though Nunez was new to animal welfare work, Lamberti says his experiences working to improve living conditions for people highlighted similarities with the humane movement. “When you hear Jorge talk about what he did in El Salvador for people, I think it really is the same thing as what we’re doing in Pets for Life,” he says. “We’re just adding cats and dogs to the equation.”
Beyond that, Lamberti adds, Nunez’s personal history serves as an inspiration for the PFL staff. “When you hear his story, you can’t not be inspired to do good work.”
Seeds of Change
When Nunez, 54, was growing up in an El Salvador that had been ruled by a military dictatorship since the 1930s, revolution was practically in the air.
He first heard about the need for justice and better wages as a young child, when his father would take him to labor union gatherings. Nunez learned how generous low-income communities can be when he took part in faith-based drives that involved going door-to-door to collect food, clothes and rent money for the neighborhood’s neediest families. People sought to take care of each other and embraced the attitude that “the little that you have, you share it.”
As a teenager in the 1970s, Nunez helped organize marches against a government-imposed fee for attending school, which was a hardship for low-income residents of the countryside. Just distributing the protest fliers could put you in danger of being tortured, killed or becoming one of the “disappeared.”
The government viewed organizers as criminals and would resort to deadly violence to break up public demonstrations, Nunez says. But rather than discouraging the protesters, the crackdown angered them and made them more determined to change things. Nunez remembers thinking, “There’s no way they can stop us.”
Leaving his house one morning, Nunez spotted a car belonging to a death squad—identifiable by its darkened windows. He started running and managed to escape to his aunt’s house about 20 minutes away; two of his friends who lived nearby were captured and disappeared. Fearing for his safety, his family arranged for Nunez to join a group of about 25 people who traveled through Guatemala and Mexico, eventually crossing the Texas border.He flew to Los Angeles shortly afterward, and soon got involved in fundraising events to support the demonstrations in El Salvador, as well as marches in LA urging an end to U.S. military aid for the regime. Nunez returned to El Salvador in 1989 to fight in an FMLN offensive that he says showed that neither the guerillas nor the government could triumph militarily, so a political solution was necessary. Governments around the world pressed for a peaceful resolution of the civil war, essentially forcing the El Salvadoran government to halt its human-rights abuses. A peace accord was signed in January 1992.
Today, Nunez continues fighting the good fight for people, as well as animals. As a senior field deputy for de Leon (who’s now president of the state Senate), he works on immigration issues and organizes in immigrant communities. The responsibilities of his full-time job caused him to relinquish his position as a PFL consultant, but he continues to help the program when he can. Nunez’s wife, Sonia Perez, accompanied him on many of his PFL outings, and has now become the program’s full-time community organizer in LA.
A lifelong animal lover who has two dogs, Nunez says working on behalf of animals is not so different from fighting for human rights. “The only difference that I see is that working with people, you know that in some ways they can protect themselves,” he says.
Despite his role in historic events, Nunez retains a common touch that helps make him an impactful organizer.
“I think Jorge’s biggest asset is when he meets someone, he makes you feel like you’re his best friend,” Yañez says. “That’s why he has so many friends, and he has so many contacts, because he really treats everybody with a lot of respect. He was an immigrant himself. So when he goes out and he does his outreach, people see themselves in him, and vice versa, because his story really is their story.”