Gabrielle Vignone named as the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Awardee

By Kim Lamb Gregory

“We all stayed still as stone. The light moved over our faces, but the…walls blocked us from view. The cops left, I whispered, ‘They’re gone, we should go before they come back…’”
—excerpt from Mi Chaos: A Chola Love Story

Nicknamed “Gabby” when she and her friends hung out on the streets of Santa Barbara, CSUCI 2023 Distinguished Alumni “Gabby” Vignone believes her formal name, “Gabrielle,” now suits her better. 

“I think I’ve gotten to that ‘change’ point in life,” said Vignone, who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in English. “I think we don’t know who we are for a while as we go through different changes and experiences that bring us to where we are now.” 

For Vignone, those experiences have included giving birth at 15, having her childhood best friend killed by a train, falling in love with a man, raising four children with him, and having him die in prison. 

“I spent a lot of my life in the survival stage,” Vignone said. “It was, ‘Do we have enough money? Do we have enough food? What do we do next?’” With encouragement from CSUCI Professor (now Emeritus) Joan Peters, Vignone turned her struggles into compelling stories and ultimately, into her first book. When some of the passages from the book, Mi Chaos: A Chola Love Story, were published in the Santa Barbara Independent, readers wanted to know where they could read more.

Gabrielle Vignone“Joan gave me the gift of seeing how things are strung together,” Vignone said. “I’m very good at short stories, but Joan taught me how to weave the stories into a book.”

Peters met Vignone when Vignone took one of her classes. Peters admitted to being floored at how raw, honest and well-written Vignone’s stories were—especially one of her earlier pieces about her son’s first grand mal seizure. 

 “Gabby wrote with an energy so fierce that when a computer wasn’t available, she’d write on her phone,” Peters said. “And did this with a full-time job and three children to raise on her own!”

Her children, CSUCI and Peters ignited Vignone’s resilience as she turned her life into a success story.

After graduating from CSUCI, Vignone shifted into the non-profit sector, managing low-income and farmworker housing. 

“I took that role and treated people the way I would want to be treated,” she said. “I started a food share program there. I had residents who didn’t have documents to work, or never had a job before and now they had something to put on a resume.”

She made sure the kids had backpacks and got on the “Toys for Tots” list every Christmas. Vignone continued to advance her education and moved up in the housing world, and two years ago, she became the executive director at House Farm Workers! a non-profit organization dedicated to finding affordable, safe, and stable housing for farmworkers.  

Upon learning she had been chosen as the 2023 Distinguished Alumnus and that she would be speaking at the President’s Dinner on October 28, Vignone was surprised and honored.

“To get any recognition at any level, even if it’s just a thank you…it’s special,” she said. “I did a lot of things going through my life where there was no thank you.”

On Vignone’s web site, which contains more excerpts from Vignone’s ongoing projects, Peters sums up the star she discovered in English class one day:

“We’ve seen Gabby grow from a wild-child gang girl to a mother steering her children through a gauntlet of illness, depression and teen pregnancy,” Peters wrote. “As a reflective adult and an immensely talented writer, she offers an immersion into a world that has never been written about by someone who lived it.”

© Winter 2023-24 / Volume 28 / Number 1 / Biannual

Back to Top ↑