Fernando Lopez became part of the POPS family before there even was a POPS. Over a decade ago, he was a student of Dennis Danziger (POPS’s co-founder), who was his English teacher at Pacific Palisades High. Fernando and his sisters now own and operate the celebrated Oaxacan restaurant “Guelaguetza”—winner of the James A Beard award 2015. If you know anything about POPS, you probably know that food is at the heart of our mission as we aim to nourish body and soul. In fact, our unofficial motto has always been, “First, we eat.” This is why we are indebted to Fernando and to Guelaguezta who generously donate their irresistible food every week for the club at LA High School for the Arts (LAHSA) in the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools campus in Koreatown.
Born in Mexico, Fernando’s family moved to the US when he was only 7 years old, and when they overstayed their visas, they spent some time undocumented (though they all eventually became American citizens). His father founded Guelaguetza and several other restaurants and was active in improving the lives of other Oaxacan immigrants, from founding a newspaper to creating an organization addressing vital immigrant issues. When Fernando and his sisters inherited their father’s restaurant, it seems Fernando also inherited some of his parents’ sense of social justice, though he says his father “wouldn’t use that term.” Helping members of his community came naturally to the elder Lopez. Today, when you step inside Guelaguetza, you’ll be treated to authentic Oaxacan food and atmosphere, but Fernando and his sisters have also made the food and restaurant their own. From the massive, colorful murals on the walls to the many ornate traditional pieces displayed, Fernando clearly places a premium on Oaxacan artwork. He admires the “naked power” that comes through in the writing by POPS’ students, and he believes that finding artistic ways of expressing oneself can act as a bridge across time and space. It isn’t lost on Fernando how the immigrant experience and the incarceration experience sometimes mirror each other. In both situations, families are separated, identities threatened, and it is the youth who often suffer most. But in these difficult times for vulnerable communities, Fernando remains hopeful. “No matter what happens in this country, it’s still an amazing country…a good foundation,” he says. “You can still thrive, you can still succeed.”