This Presente! was written by Garret Virchick, a close friend and comrade of John’s.
“I am not losing hope. I’m just losing my life.“– John Alloca
John Allocca was as committed a revolutionary as one could hope to be. After a decade long battle with lung cancer and the complications that followed, he passed away too young at 57 years of age.
For all of his adult life, John fought against oppression and for a socialist vision of the world. At Georgetown University he was a student activist. When he moved to Boston, he took a job as an organizer for Local 26 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers. He joined Freedom Road Socialist Organization. He decided to become a teacher and spent over 20 years in the Boston Public Schools. When cancer invaded his lungs and it became impossible for him to teach, he reinvented himself. Always a fluent Spanish speaker, he obtained certification to become an interpreter and, according to his professor, earned the only perfect score ever on the final exam.
John’s work in the Boston Teachers Union and his advocacy for social justice helped to transform the union. But the idea of social justice unionism was something of a minority opinion, to say the least, when John first started working in the Boston Public Schools. Teacher unions at that time were mostly about pay and working conditions. But as a new teacher at English High School he saw the lack of Latino parent representation on the school site council, despite the fact that Latinos made up a significant and growing segment of the student body. He advocated for change. And organized around it. This ran contrary to the wishes of the headmaster at the time. He was not rehired that first year but had no regrets because he knew he was fighting the good fight.
That was who John was. He was unrelenting in his pursuit of justice. And like many committed activists throughout history, he was willing to pay the price if need be.
When there was a rush to war against Iraq in 2001, the drumbeat of imperial patriotism was everywhere. We were asked at our union meeting to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. But on that day John’s daughter Rosie was in attendance when he picked her up after school. And because Rosie was there John knew he would have to stand up for a cause…or sit down in this case.
You see at the time Rosie was in the middle of her own act of civil disobedience at the Rafael Hernandez School, the school where John and Ann sent their children because it was a 2-way bilingual school and John wanted Rosie, and later Victor, to learn Spanish. She had been refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school. But on that day, John’s daughter Rosie was with him at the union meeting because he had picked her up after school. So, when the union president asked that all members stand for the pledge John knew he had to support Rosie. So, we all stayed seated. There was a political price to pay for this act of familial solidarity. Grumblings from some conservative members surrounded us. But John was unfazed in his typical, principled way. Because he knew it was the right thing to do. And he was more than willing to discuss it with anyone who was willing to listen.
John’s stance was always with society’s forgotten. For most of his teaching career John taught at an alternative school for Latinx students who were not making it in their regular high schools. His compañera, Susana Stringer-Velez worked with John for many years at El Centro de Cardinale Alternative High School. Her words tell us what a special teacher John was.
“I first met John when I interviewed for a position at this new school in 1997. I was 22 years old, straight out of UMASS-Amherst where I had studied comparative literature and leftist revolutionary politics in the ivory tower bubble, steeped in the language of academia. Much to my relief, John suggested we co-teach and by this I really mean that I was his apprentice in class about Latino Film and identity.
“I was fascinated by what seemed to be a magical connection between him and the students. I would ask myself: Who was this white guy with slicked back hair, speaking Spanish so well everyone assumed he was Puerto Rican? His tools were a sarcastic wit, a dry sense of humor and tough love approach. John had a powerful voice, a loud voice, and he used it a lot. He yelled and was funny and turned red when he was stressed. I remember that one day he yelled at a class and told them they were “acting like assholes.” Of course, John felt guilty and apologized for losing his cool. But most of us knew, including the students, that on that particular occasion, he was not entirely wrong.
His expectations of students were always high. He modeled for them a profound respect for others, for the vulnerable in society and wanted for them to think for themselves and treat others with respect and kindness. He valued our students and had high expectations.”
This is why John was loved by his students. He always kept it real: not only for cracking jokes and amazing them with his encyclopedic knowledge of history but for challenging them to think, for asking great questions and allowing students to debate issues of social justice they face every day.
“We had a special community at El Centro and over time formed familiar relationships with many of our students. John went with students to court, to the hospital after a stabbing, walked a student down the aisle at her wedding, went to the airport to send a student on a study abroad trip to Ghana, attended baby showers, visited their homes. Ultimately what he modeled for me was a profound respect for the intelligence and critical thinking of his students. He had a deep personal empathy for all his students as strong as he did the communal empathy for victims of oppression around the planet. He acted in solidarity with them, without a hint of the disrespectful pitying that often plagues those who work in education.”
“John, my mentor, my big brother, my comrade, my inspiration, may your soul rest in peace. I am so proud of your life and will forever remember your call to action, your pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. We will all miss you so much.”
John was ALWAYS an activist. Jeff Crosby, an old comrade of John’s, spoke at his memorial in Boston reminding us that John looked at everything through a political lens that always asked the question: will this further the struggle for justice? And Marjie Crosby, Jeff’s partner and one of John’s fellow union members, reminded us that she could always count on John to raise the hard points, that others did not want to talk about, in a principled and kind way. And I, Garret, remember John as someone always looking to include the voices of those who are often ignored. When we were young teachers and active in the National Association of Education Activists John would always befriend the Latinx parents who participated, making sure that he spoke to them in Spanish, interested in their views on the struggle to democratize public education.
In his remembrance of John, Jeff said this, “Cancer strips you down. It often changes you. But cancer did not fundamentally change John. He no doubt had dark moments in his struggle with the disease, but he never showed his fear to the people around him, the people he loved. Cancer did not change him, he just became more of himself, an indicator of who you really are.
“When at the end of your life, when facing death, especially after a long illness, you are exactly the person you were during the previous rest of your life, that is something special. This was a life well-lived.”
The death of my comrade leaves a hole in my heart. But John would not want us to despair. In the last few months he could work less and less. And when his fellow interpreters could see him struggling to breathe, one of them asked if he was losing hope. But he was having none of that. In response he simply said, “I am not losing hope. I’m just losing my life.”
¡JOHN ALLOCCA, PRESENTE!