Growing Activism in Holyoke: The Carlos Vega Fund for Social Justice

While growing up, Aaron Vega spent weekends with his late father, Carlos, attending protests, making flyers for neighborhood block parties, or door-knocking to get people to register to vote. Talks at the dinner table revolved around “music, movies, and politics— and not always in that order,” recalled Aaron.

The Carlos Vega Fund for Social Justice

The elder Vega, a pillar in the Holyoke community until his death in 2012, touched many lives, starting with the migrant tobacco farm workers he worked alongside as a teenager. According to Aaron, the workers were facing healthcare and housing challenges, and it fueled his father to advocate for them.

“He was always working with people, always a collaborator. Whether it was healthcare, housing rights, voting, anti-discrimination…he was just always at the table and often the lead on it, even if behind the scenes.”

In marking Carlos Vega’s passing in 2012, the Republican recounted his many contributions to Holyoke’s residents—particularly Latinos—over four decades:

“During his tenure with Nueva Esperanza, an agency he helped found in the early 1980s, Vega played a role in developing 400 units of affordable housing in South Holyoke along with commercial space for small businesses. In addition to his work in the realm of housing—which came in response to the arson fires that devastated sections of the city in the 1970s and 1980s—Vega established a reputation as an outspoken advocate for education, employment and safe streets. He participated in a desegregation lawsuit involving city schools in the 1970s and argued for police foot patrols in South Holyoke in the early 2000s.”

Battling brain cancer towards the end of his life, Carlos connected with long-time advocates and Community Foundation board members Luis-Orlando Isaza Villegas and Maria Idali Torres to create the Carlos Vega Fund for Social Justice.

“We decided to use my father’s 60th birthday as a fundraiser for the Fund. We raised $20,000 plus in that first event!” recalled Aaron. Carlos’s last public appearance was at the event. He succumbed to cancer shortly after.

The donor-advised fund, held at the Foundation, aims to “honor Carlos’ commitment to a more vibrant and equitable community in the Greater Holyoke area by supporting individuals and organizations in the creation of social-justice related projects and programs.”

Aaron Vega and an advisory committee review applications and award grants from the Fund annually to local nonprofits. He said, “When we get into an impasse, we say, ‘What would Carlos do?’

Grants typically fund smaller grassroots community organizing efforts, reflecting Carlos Vega’s own engagement at the neighborhood level. Aaron said, “He had been involved with so many nonprofits where $500 bucks made a difference putting an event together, getting printing done, or buying food or childcare for an event…He knew that sometimes just a little bit of money could help a project through.”

This past June, The Carlos Vega Fund awarded 12 new grants totaling over $7,500 to organizations in the greater Holyoke area who are fighting injustice, oppression, and poverty. View the dozens of Fund awardees since 2012. Aaron, now the director of the Office of Planning and Economic Development for the City of Holyoke, points to its strong community and the willingness of people to work together across ethnicities and cultures. “My dad would always say, ‘Holyoke’s history mirrors American history.’ And we’re really proud of our history.”

Aaron Vega (far right) with 2019 Vega Fund grant recipient representatives from Massachusetts Jobs for Justice.
Aaron Vega (far right) with 2019 Vega Fund grant recipient representatives from Massachusetts Jobs for Justice.

Watch the video about the life of Carlos Vega [Video by Scott Hancock]
Photos courtesy of the Carlos Vega Fund for Social Justice [via Facebook]