After years of drugs, running with a gang, seeing his life spiral away, Cesar Aguirre had a decision to make. Either continue or change.

Aguirre chose change.

Today the 31-year-old continues to make changes — for himself, his two young daughters and for others living on the edge. He is a community activist, organizing parents at his daughter’s school and other schools. He works with Sun Tran bus riders who are lobbying against fare increases, and he prepares food for the homeless and hungry at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen.

Casa Maria is also home for him and his girls, who are 10 and 7 years old.

“I’m happy here,” said Aguirre. “We have everything we need.”

As a full-time community organizer, Aguirre receives $10 a week and gas money. He and his daughters live in a small apartment at Casa Maria, at South Third Avenue and East 26th Street. They eat the food prepared in the soup kitchen and wear clothes found in the donation bin.

For Aguirre and his girls, life is good. He said he has learned the “difference between a want and a need.”

I caught up with Aguirre last week, at a meeting of the Tucson Bus Riders Union at the Armory Park Senior Center and the next day at his apartment, where his mom, Maria Aguirre, was helping with the family laundry.

Hey, even a busy community activist needs help.

Aguirre said he chose this life of service and activism after he enrolled his eldest daughter at Ochoa Elementary in South Tucson. One of Tucson Unified School District’s older schools, Ochoa serves primarily Latino and indigenous students. Rates of poverty, social stress factors, single parents, unemployment and low wages are off the charts as families struggle to survive.

Aguirre knew first-hand the obstacles that street life places on Ochoa’s families. He survived his own.

In his youth, his family moved several times, finally ending up in Three Points, southwest of Tucson. He went to Flowing Wells High School, then to Sunnyside High School. But he dropped out.

The lure of gangs and drugs and alcohol was stronger. He lived with his two younger siblings and their parents but his mom and dad were absent often because they worked long hours.

“We lost our family base and connection,” said Aguirre. As a young teen, he felt disconnected. He found a family in a south-side gang. He began using and then dealing drugs. Selling coke gave him cash and credibility.

“I felt like I belonged,” said.

His mother, who has heard these words before, still cringed at feeling the pain again.

“I’m so sorry mijo,” she said to him. “I did not know.”

Aguirre’s self-evaluation and road to change began to take shape in early 2001. His cousin was shot and killed outside a downtown nightclub. Aguirre was supposed to have been with him that night.

“It could have been me,” he said.

Getting out and drying out was hard, however. He still surrounded himself with friends, including a girlfriend, who continued to abuse themselves with drugs and booze. In 2005 he was charged with domestic violence and disorderly conduct, both felonies.

He spent some in prison and a year later his second daughter was born. The baby had cocaine in her system.

Aguirre continued to push his way out. Released from prison, he worked and took full custody of his daughters. He enrolled at Pima Community College.

But it was at Ochoa that his outlook and determination changed. TUSD considered closing Ochoa in 2012, prompting a strong response from parents and South Tucson.

Aguirre joined in. He felt a connection. Ochoa’s families became his.

He attended school board meetings and public rallies. Seeing the disparate resources available to low-income families, sharing their struggles to sustain themselves, “I realized I could do something to change their lives,” he said.

Rallying the poor and the underserved is now his mission. His daughters often accompany him to meetings and protests. He wants his girls to see life the way many people in Tucson experience it.

His mother beamed with pride.

“I don’t think I’ve seen my son so happy. He feels good giving back,” she said.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187.