Obituary: John Joseph Avila

Great-grandfather, educator, community organizer, advocate

John Joseph Avila, long devoted resident of Pomona, was born March 24,1929 in Denver, to Carlotta “Lottie” and Roman Avila, Sr. The middle child of eight tight knit siblings, he shared fond childhood memories of freedom, multicultural exposure, and Catholic family traditions growing up in West End, Colorado during the Depression and World War II.

As first generation Mexican Americans, John and his siblings were instilled with a deep sense of pride and obligation to honor the sacrifices of their parents through the pursuit of service, education, and political consciousness. After graduating from Cathedral High School, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years. He then pursued a degree from University of Northern Colorado, Greeley to become a lifelong educator, community organizer and advocate. It was there he met his beloved wife and life partner, Dona. An artist, Catholic, and educator herself, the two connected over their shared passion for spirituality, public service, the arts, and family values. The interracial couple bucked societal expectations of the time and married in her home state of Minnesota in 1961. They relocated to Pomona shortly thereafter to jumpstart their careers in education at Pomona Unified School District, and expanded their family by three with children Nori (Madrigal), Kyle (Avila) and Kena (Avila).

Politicized by the advocacy of his father Roman, who lost his job speaking out about the poor working conditions of seasonal migrants he recruited for the Brasero Program, he prided himself on challenging the status quo. He recounted the assassinations of civil rights heroes President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his early days as a middle school teacher as the spark that ignited his fight for the expansion of quality education to underserved communities throughout his career.

He organized with the Association of Mexican American Educators and successfully lobbied for funding to spread pre-K through 12th grade bilingual education. He created curriculum to recruit, train and coordinate educators to meet the needs of their Spanish speaking students and families, and was a strong proponent of affirmative action.

“John identified with the Chicano movement’s vision for public education as a way to dismantle oppression, and worked to uplift Chicano and Latino teachers and administrators in the district,” his family shared. “In fact, the night before John and Dona moved to Oregon after 50-plus years in their art-adorned Pomona home, he received a phone call from his dear friend Richard Alvarez thanking him for his leadership development.”

Over the course of his life, he was a member of many organizations, including the Catholic Newman Community, the Optimist Club, the United Farm Workers, La Raza Unida party and the League of United Latin American Citizens. His passion for policy as a mechanism for social change drew him to run for mayor of Pomona in 1995. He lost against a popular incumbent at the time, but continued to seek opportunities to influence the conditions of his community. Upon his “official” retirement as teacher, he was elected as Pomona Unified School District School Board president, and served his community honorably for over a decade.

“Jovial, generous, and charismatic, John was the life of every party and a natural born leader,” his family added. “His strong will was respected in the classroom, boardroom, and within the home, where expectations remained high for his family to live by those same standards and values his parents had so firmly instilled. Whether telling a lively joke, talking history, or debating politics, John Avila’s tenured wisdom, charming wit, and commanding presence had an undeniable influence on all in his orbit. The way he created space and facilitated connection across differences will remain a treasured piece of his legacy.

“He was a lover of music, antique collectibles, and sweet treats, other qualities no doubt passed along to us all. Fully embracing his evolution into our beloved papa, John would dress up for years as Santa Claus, sometimes making elves out of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,  Evan, Maya, Kaya, Tiana, Sonja, Anavina, Sage, Asher, Amanda, Dane, Canon, and Sophia. The perennial mentor, he would never skip an opportunity to ask about our educational and professional interests — offering guidance and expressing deep wells of pride in our decisions to pursue higher education, skill development, travel and activism in his stead. Securing our unbreakable bonds through prized family traditions and a resulting treasure trove of memories made during 30-plus years of annual vacations in Carlsbad, California, as well as Avilanche reunions with his sprawling Avila contingent based in Denver, Papa John was devoted to upholding the true value of family until his very last breath.

“John was surrounded by love and care from his family and passed away peacefully Tuesday, May 7 in McMinnville, Oregon.”

He is survived by his wife, Dona Avila; three children; ten grandchildren, two great-grandchildren; sisters Laura and Maryann; and brother Roman Avila, Jr.

Services will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday, June 20 at Pilgrim Hall, 600 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, CA 91767.

Please consider donating on his behalf to the PUSD John Avila Scholarship Fund at, or


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