Universidad Popular: Teaching & Learning Together



The mission of Universidad Popular is to offer educational and civic opportunities for anyone interested in becoming more civically involved in our communities.


La Maestra, Arcela Nuñez-Alvarez, is a human rights defender and co-founder of Universidad Popular, a community-based organization with the mission of making the promise of education a reality for all. She is committed to increasing knowledge about history and culture of Latinos and Latinas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border by promoting educación popular strategies and facilitating civic literacy that contribute to building political power. Her scope of expertise includes Chicano and Chicana history, ethnic studies, civic engagement, cultural folkways, educational equity, health and food justice, immigration, environmental justice, and human rights. Currently, she is leading the regional outreach and education campaign for Census 2020 in North County.


Universidad Popular aims to reach the following primary goals:

1. Promotion of Human Right to Education. Provide Academic enrichment to improve academic learning in the areas of literature, history, political science, cultural studies, sociology, and criminal justice.

2. Promote Democratic and Social Justice Values. Provide Civic Education to increase civic knowledge and actual participation in community affairs.

3. Promote Human Right to Cultural Life. Provide Cultural Studies, focused on Chicana and Chicano Studies and Ethnic Studies to strengthen cultural identity and social cohesion.

4. Promote Human Right to Wellness and a Healthy Environment. Increase awareness of the connection between health and our environment.

5. Promote Human Right to Work and Economic Justice. Provide Career development and employment readiness to increase preparation for employment in 21st century, awareness of vocational and college opportunities and success of employability.


Universidad Popular embraces a social justice framework for leadership development, promotion of human rights and political empowerment. Specifically, Universidad Popular aims at increasing the civic engagement of Latina and Latino immigrants.

We use best practices for organizing a civic and culturally appropriate education curriculum based within a developmental life course framework, the needs of youth and adults, and teach using "popular education" pedagogy. The material is presented through a culturally responsive lens in English, Spanish, and bilingual formats which resonate with participants' histories and lived experiences within a safe and supportive environment.

A hallmark to the effectiveness of the program is that the entire community shares learning together. The program recognizes the importance of the extended family and the need for a comprehensive approach to education and political integration. Helping community members gain cultural and social capital is an explicit part of the education program.


Cultivando Liderazgo (Cultivating Leadership) is a leadership development program of Universidad Popular.

The curriculum connects volunteering and civic engagement to students' lives and aims to bring to life cultural wisdom and community history; tap into the exceptional minds and talents of community members to bring to life innovative ideas that can benefit the entire community; present basic requirements, roles and responsibilities of an engaged citizenry; and, discuss issues of transportation, land use, sustainability, health, education, public safety, and business to examine multiple perspectives.

Through a series of speakers, fieldtrips/tours, and in-class activities, students gathered a variety of information about the issues mentioned above, met leaders in the field and, wrestled with the question, “What do we do now?” Through group discussion and deliberation, they identified areas for volunteering and civic participation.

Our program provides education based on critical pedagogy with the aim of offering hope, opportunity for meaningful reflection, critical consciousness and other elements of humanity for community members who are traditionally disenfranchised.


Universidad Popular builds on a resilient tradition of resistance known as educación popular or popular education, meaning education of the people. This model of education is most

commonly known as a liberating pedagogy through which an individual becomes aware of his or her personal experiences and how these experiences are connected to the larger society.

The most famous educator, Paulo Freire, said: “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves” (We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change)

Universidad Popular was born almost fifteen years ago, brought to life by a group of community leaders and educators in collaboration with Latinos y Latinas en Accion in the City Heights neighborhood. Its mission was to provide a space where Latino and Latina immigrants could convene and learn. The program expanded into North County where it flourished and continues to grow.

During the last five years, Universidad Popular has been nestled in the heart of Vista, California. However, programs are offered in identified strategically located sites throughout North County (Vista, San Marcos, Escondido, Fallbrook and Pauma) with the intent of capturing community knowledge and fostering appreciation for traditional know-how while strengthening family and community cohesion. Specifically, we are bringing families together for communal learning where elders share wisdom about healing, crafts, farming, cooking, writing, etc. and youth teach technology, physical activity, multimedia, etc. The goal is to teach living skills and to learn from each other. For us, it's about building self-reliance in a unique multi-generational setting and to facilitate hands-on learning experiences.

Universidad Popular uses popular education pedagogy; it presents the material through a culturally appropriate and responsive lens in English, Spanish and bilingual formats, which resonate with participants’ histories and lived experiences. We employ Paulo Freire’s (1970) approach of dialectic interchange and kinesthetic learning. An essential element to the model is of empowerment and connecting students’ learning with their role in creating positive social change.