Appetite for change

A day in the life of a Sacramento State student hunger striker

Sacramento State students (left to right) James Damiani, Mildred Garcia and Yeimi Lopez haven’t had a bite to eat since Wednesday, May 2, in protest of higher-education cuts.

Sacramento State students (left to right) James Damiani, Mildred Garcia and Yeimi Lopez haven’t had a bite to eat since Wednesday, May 2, in protest of higher-education cuts.

Photo By william leung

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Finals begin this Monday at Sacramento State, but senior Mildred Garcia has decided to add to the rigor of studying for exams by going on a hunger strike.

“I drink as much water as possible,” the 22-year-old social-work major said. “If I get dizzy, it’s time to drink something with sugar in it.”

Garcia, who hails from Chicago by way of Guatemala, savors the American Dream of improvement through education, which is why she’s protesting the California State University system’s funding crisis. It’s a drastic, statewide protest: Garcia and 13 other students on six CSU campuses have been food-free since May 2 at midnight.

“It hurts,” she said. “I miss food. Fasting is a hard thing, more mental than anything, but also very empowering.”

Avoiding pictures of food eases the pain of fasting. She naps more and sleeps deeper and longer during the night. But nights can also be fitful. “Sometimes I get up after sleeping for an hour because I’m hungry,” Garcia said.

The Sac State strikers table at the school’s free-speech area until 6 p.m. “But Monday we closed early because we were feeling weak,” Garcia explained. After, she got a ride home and napped before rising to drink juice and finish schoolwork. The day ended with Garcia drinking more juice before turning in for the night.

The fifth of six children, Garcia came to the Golden State right after high-school graduation to stay with her brother Josue. She attended Los Medanos College in the Bay Area before transferring to Sac State. And she says she’s grateful for her life here.

“Especially my education,” she added, “knowing what it could have been if I stayed in Guatemala.”

But Garcia is concerned that the CSU is increasingly becoming a “privatized” system that forces students into debt. Her view is political and personal. Like scores of students, Garcia’s debt load—$17,000 now—will rise until graduation, she said.

“I see injustice happening right in front of me,” Garcia said. “I feel a personal responsibility to do something about it.”

U.S. immigrants such as Garcia have a history of involvement with popular movements, such as the fight for an eight-hour workday. She does not come from a family of activists; her politics emerged in a movement of students fed up with paying more for an education, but getting less from it.

Garcia joined the Sac State chapter of CSU Students for Quality Education and last year, was part of the Sac State Spring, when she and other students occupied an administrative building for days to protest state underfunding of the CSU.

Police in riot gear raided the encampment protest during the morning hours, and school management charged her and three others with violating a campus code of conduct.

Yet Garcia is resilient. “The CSU funding crisis is only going to get worse if nobody does anything about it,” she said.

This is why Garcia and Sac State fasters Yeimi Lopez, 22, and James Damiani, 25, rode a Greyhound bus to Long Beach this past weekend and visited strikers from five other CSU campuses. The Sac State hunger strikers also met face-to-face with CSU Chancellor Charles Reed.

“Reed didn’t give us anything,” said Garcia, referring to the hunger strikers’ demands, which include rolling back top CSU’s executives’ pay to halting student-fee increases. Reed agreed to look into the hunger strikers’ demand to increase campus free-speech areas, according to her.

“But being able to meet with him is a big deal and a win,” she said.

Garcia had a physical at the Sac State Student Health Center prior to beginning the hunger strike. She got tips on how to be more aware of dehydration and low blood pressure during the fast.

Like tens of millions of Americans, she lacks private health-care insurance. Yet Garcia remains steadfast in calling for an accessible and affordable CSU, as written in California’s 1960 Master Plan for higher education.

“They have developed their own analysis and are taking their own action,” said Kevin Wehr, a sociology professor at Sac State and chapter president of the California Faculty Association, speaking of Garcia and her fellow fasters.

“We are all feeling strong, though extremely hungry,” Garcia said. “We are staying on the hunger strike until our demands are met.”