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Community Remembers Rubén Castilla Herrera, a Radical in Work, Life & Love

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Community Remembers Rubén Castilla Herrera, a Radical in Work, Life & LovePhotos by Katie Forbes.
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If you’ve never met Rubén Castilla Herrera, you’ve probably at least seen his face or read his name; his life’s work was activism, and he spent the better part of 20 years dedicated to it here in Columbus. 

While known widely as a fighter for immigrant rights and the Latinx community, Herrera could be found rallying around a number of causes, from advancing women’s rights and LGBTQIA rights, to combatting police brutality and corporate greed. 

Herrera stands alongside Amber Evans, another organizer who recently passed away.
“Him and Amber both, I’m just thinking, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” says Rhiannon Childs, Executive Director of the Ohio Women’s March. “Not only were they activists in the community, but Amber and Rubén were like, the leaders. They were the ones that helped move us all and got us going.”

Herrera, 61, passed away suddenly at his home in Franklinton on Saturday, April 6, leaving a grieving community shocked and grappling with the loss of another major organizational leader. 

“In Rubén’s words, ‘When I struggle for words, that’s because there are no words. There is really just feelings and emotions and those are wrapped around story and our experience,’” reads a post on Herrera’s page by his partner Nick Pasquarello and four children, Rita, Rubén, Naomi, and Marisa. “As we struggle to find the words, we find solitude in knowing that Rubén is at peace, and has found himself at home with his mother.”

During his career as an organizer, Herrera was the state director in Ohio for Reform Immigration for America. He also co-founded the Central Ohio Worker Center (COWC), pushing for a labor movement uniting low-income and immigrant workers to fight for better working conditions, higher wages and benefits. 

Herrera was also involved in Sanctuary in the Streets (SIS), an initiative founded on forming interpersonal relationships with vulnerable, undocumented immigrants, educating them on their rights, and advocating for policies that made working and living in Ohio easier for them. 

As an activist, Herrera saw commonality in the struggles of low-income workers, undocumented and documented immigrants, the LGBTQIA community, the elderly and other marginalized groups, and fought to prioritize intersectionality in his work. Described by people who knew him as vehemently anti-capitalist, Herrera would speak at rallies calling for the abolition of ICE and, days later, be seen at a rally calling for the demilitarization of police. 

Herrera speaking at the Pig Roast Against Prison Slavery, organized by BQIC.
“Rubén’s absence leaves an unfillable void here. He exuded kindness and warmth wherever he went, and he was fiercely dedicated to fighting for justice alongside many different communities,” says Dkéama Alexis, co-founder of activist group Black Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC). “We’ll all miss him dearly.”

The Columbus Sanctuary Collective (CSC) was the latest project for Herrera, within which he helped undocumented immigrants find places of worship that would offer sanctuary. As part of CSC, he helped local sanctuary leader Edith Espinal find sanctuary at the Columbus Mennonite Church, and Miriam Vargas find sanctuary at First English Lutheran Church in East Columbus.

As friends, family and colleagues prepare for memorial services this weekend, they remember and describe him as a radical individual, who “not only talked the talk, but walked the walk,” says Nick Pasquarello, his partner of seven years. “In every way he lived his life, he was, in essence, radical — radical love and radical passion for the people.”

“Rubén was the embodiment of radical love, radical compassion, and radical change. His wisdom was a gift,” says organizer and social worker Erin Upchurch. “And sometimes it seemed as if he were from another place, another world; like an ancestor here to hold and guide us. He stood tall and bold like a mountain and moved peacefully and with purpose like a river.”

“Earlier today, I heard the word ‘replace — it’s going to take a long time to replace him.’ Even the sense of replacing him— no one is going to replace him,” says Pasquarello. “One hundred people aren’t going to replace him.”

Services will be held for Herrera all weekend, starting Friday, April 12 at 6 p.m. at First English Lutheran Church. Saturday, April 13, a funeral service is open to all who are able to join, starting at the Statehouse at 1:30 p.m. From there, attendees will march to Broad Street United Methodist, 501 E. Broad St., for the service at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Edith Espinal and her team will hold space for Herrera at Columbus Mennonite Church, starting at 7 p.m.

“Rubèn always showed up, he was always there. It didn’t matter if the injustice touched him directly or not because he understood how all injustices interconnect. He always said, my pain is your pain and your pain is mine,” says Helen Stewart, activist and co-founder of BQIC. “I can hear his voice now telling us all not to let his passing impact our work. He always pushed us to keep going, keep fighting and keep moving forward.”
“Rubén was an irreplaceable force from a generation that still knew how to move people with words and ideas,” says Austin Kocher, with COWC. “His personal geographies – from the fields to the seminary classroom to the streets – bore the traces of colonialism and anti-colonialism, patriarchy and anti-patriarchy, racism and anti-racism. He was both an archetype of the historical movement of oppressed people and a singularity that exceeded simple description. To see his struggle was to see the contradictions of America work its way through a life, and to see that life push back with a ferocity born of profound love.”
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