Chronicle: During Tom Rivera’s memorial service, his dream of “Future Leaders” is realized

Outside Colton’s San Salvador Church, a guitar trio played the classic “Sin Ti” (“Without You”) bolero, accented by the horns and bells of passing trains.

When mourners entered, they wrote tributes to the man they called “Dr. Tom” and stuck them in a box, which quickly overflowed.

Tom Rivera grew up two blocks away in a barrio on the south side of the railroad tracks that run through town.

On a sultry Friday afternoon last month, he is remembered in the lower church crowned with four white crosses and Aztec geometric patterns.

Next to Rivera’s coffin, where he lay in a UCLA robe and sash, was a painting of him holding a lily and a photo of him in the wheelchair he had used for four decades.

They were lawyers, teachers, doctors, politicians. They were there to remember their mentor, who died of cancer at 82. They were also there to celebrate.

Rolando Flores, center, attends a wake for Tom Rivera at San Salvador de Colton Church.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

After all, many of the hundreds of people sitting in San Salvador’s worn armchairs were his life’s work. They had once been Latino kids who needed a dose of self-confidence and optimism to succeed.

Judith Segura-Mora, Future Leaders class of 1985, approached the lectern.


The son of an orange picker, Rivera grew up in a wooden house built from the planks of old wagons.

In the Colton of his childhood, the South Pacific and the citrus industry were kings but forced their Mexican workers to live like second-class citizens. Pupils received a below-average education in segregated schools. Mexicans could not enter the white part of town after sunset.

Inequalities have even manifested themselves in the religious sphere. When Catholic leaders built a new church, they placed the imposing Immaculate Conception in North Colton, even though the parish community of San Salvador dated back to the 1890s.

“That experience shaped him,” said his daughter, Evelyn Rivera Molina. “He felt that it was just something wrong with it. It created a little fire in him to make things right.

A man and a woman embrace after a wake for Tom Rivera.

As the sun sets, Robert Perez, left, waves to Nancy Reyes after a wake for Tom Rivera.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

He did things that no Mexican kid in South Colton was supposed to do. He went to Colombia in the early 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer. He earned a doctorate in education from UCLA, going on to work as a sixth-grade teacher, community college counselor, and college administrator — whatever it took to improve the prospects of young Latinos in the Inland Empire. .

Along with his wife Lily, Rivera raised money for college scholarships. In 1978, he obtained a seat on the Colton school board. In his spare time, the small but strong Rivera became a handball champion.

Then one day in the summer of 1981, he woke up unable to move his arms and legs.

Guillain-Barré syndrome, doctors said – an autoimmune disease with no known cure.

Most patients recover enough to walk again, but Rivera, a father of three young children, has become a paraplegic.

“When is this going to end?” the San Bernardino Sun quoted him as saying in 1982, months after he returned home from a year-long hospital stay.

But he eventually banded together and redoubled his efforts to help young Latinos.

“He was incredibly positive,” Lily, his 56-year-old wife, said recently. “He couldn’t see the clouds. He couldn’t see the storms. Any problem that arose, for most of us, we were like, “No, we can’t do that. He said, ‘Let’s find out.’ “

A trio of guitars plays before a wake for Tom Rivera.

Guitarists Juan Antonio Lopez, left, Joel Rodriguez and Pedro Lopez play before a wake for Tom Rivera.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Rivera returned to work at Cal State San Bernardino. In 1985, he and other educators created Inland Empire Future Leaders. Each summer, hundreds of eighth- and ninth-grade Latino students from Riverside and San Bernardino counties gather for a week-long camp in the pine woods of .

Rivera and other adults let teens be teens — sing-along songs, outdoor activities, silly icebreakers — while challenging them not to become a statistic. Go to the University. Be successful in life. Come back home. Give back.

I first met Rivera over a decade ago when he invited me to talk about my work at a future leaders camp. I had never heard of him or his organization, so I wasn’t sure what to expect as I made the winding hike from Orange County to the heights of the San Jacinto Mountains.

The wheelchair was the first thing I noticed, but I quickly forgot about it once I saw her smile.

It was a wide, bright smile that never faded, that transformed every room he walked into and fueled his often funny and always inspiring speeches to children and adults alike.

That’s what came to mind every time Rivera emailed me congratulating me at different points in my career — a new book here, a promotion there. I was one of many local Latinos whose accomplishments he followed and marked, showing that he noticed and cared.

Curtis Hsing greets Evelyn Rivera Molina, right, Tom Rivera's daughter.

Curtis Hsing, left, of the Tzu Chi Buddhist Foundation, greets Evelyn Rivera Molina, right, Tom Rivera’s daughter.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

In my many years covering Southern California Latinos, I have never met anyone as quietly influential as Dr. Tom. He was the epitome of the old journalism adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Whenever I encountered another Latina mover from the Inland Empire, it was inevitably a former leader from the future, and I asked how Dr. Tom was doing.

Planning the next future leaders, they always said – and was I going to speak this year?


“Even in death, Dr. Tom Rivera did what he did best in life – brought people together,” Segura-Mora told the San Salvador church crowd, about half of whom were Future Leaders alumni.

While Rivera’s passing was sad, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to feel bad tonight, she said. “He would like us to make sure we take that vitamin S” — a smile.

And with that, the final camp of future leaders was underway.

“His quixotic optimism unites us all,” the Riverside County Assistant District said. Atti. Carlos Monagas, Class of 1985 and co-host of the memorial with Segura-Mora. In the crowd was Monagas’ niece, a graduate of last year’s virtual Future Leaders summit.

Rudy Monterrosa (1988), a lawyer in South Bend, Ind., and former school board member there, led a clap of unity — the traditional activist clap that starts slow and ends with a thundering crescendo.

RC Heredia (1992), current chairman of the board of directors of Future Leaders, a Colton native and professor of psychology at East Los Angeles College, thanked Rivera for teaching him that “giving back to your community is one of the finest gifts you can give”.

There were references inside the baseball camp to “carino grams” and “family” which drew conspiratorial nods.

People pay their respects to Tom Rivera at San Salvador de Colton Church.

People pay their respects to Tom Rivera during a wake at San Salvador de Colton Church.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

When another speaker urged everyone to get up and engage in a favorite Rivera exercise – point your thumbs at yourself and shout, “I am! Someone!” – no one rolled their eyes at the seriousness. They had done it as kids and they were more than happy to do it again as adults.

A recording of Dr. Tom played on a slide show.

“I think a person needs to feel good about themselves,” he said. “They need to feel that people are going to listen to them. They need to feel that people are going to help them. And I think that’s the number one thing people need to become self-sufficient.

In one of Rivera’s most visible triumphs, two of the Inland Empire’s congressional districts are represented by Future Leaders alumni – Pete Aguilar (1993), a fourth-generation resident of the area, and Raul Ruiz ( 1989), the son of immigrant farm workers and a graduate of Harvard Medical School.

Members of Congress drove home from DC to attend the memorial, then got stuck in Friday night traffic. They sent recorded messages to play to the crowd – Aguilar finally showed up towards the end.

Others have spoken of Rivera’s influence outside of Future Leaders.

Dr. William Keh, board director of the Tzu Chi Medical Foundation, told the crowd how the Buddhist organization approached Rivera in the early 1990s to help establish free health services in San Bernardino because they respected his sunny and hard work. approach.

California Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-Grand Terrace) proudly joked that Rivera “always claimed” their hometown of Colton wherever he went.

Gomez Reyes, a lawyer, recalled that she asked Rivera to speak to one of her clients, a 16-year-old named George, who became a quadriplegic after being shot.

Rivera was candid with George about how society would see him – they would just notice the wheelchair.

“But if you smile,” she recalled telling Rivera, “the first thing they’re going to notice is your smile.”

Two decades after that encounter, “George still remembers what Tom said to him. And he smiles.

The grand finale was a slideshow that Rivera created in anticipation of when her body would fail.

With Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time” as the soundtrack, flashes of a life well lived passed. Photos from a happy childhood. Portraits of the end of college studies. Vacation snapshots with his family. The time he met President Clinton. Scenes of hospitalization that changed everything, and yet nothing. Image after image of the camps of future leaders through the decades.

People laughed. People sighed. People were crying. After the end, they stayed and made up for it.

Rivera would be buried the next day. Another meeting would take place.

Then they would disperse across the region and the country, returning to their work of education, legislation, healing, advocacy – the leaders, all of them.

Los Angeles Times

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