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Cruz Reynoso: A Life Committed to Justice

CRLA Executive Director Jose Padilla with former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso
May 10, 2021

Entre Los Primeros…Among the First Chicano Heroes

In my very limited knowledge of Chicano History, there are a handful of advocate influencers whose example of social justice activism or public service became role models to emulate and follow.

Many people consider that Cesar Chavez was the first U.S. born hero of the Mexican community in this country, recognized nationally and internationally.

On this occasion of remembering the late Cruz Reynoso, I begin by saying that, like Cesar, Cruz’s was a lifelong commitment to the betterment of our community in the manner he practiced social justice—as a rural private attorney, as attorney and Executive Director of CRLA, as a jurist, and as a law school professor.

Although he was less in the public eye at the time, Cruz also was a civil rights hero and mentor, introducing many of us to the lofty notions of civil rights causes and how to be a public servant.

The Imperial Valley: A Personal Connection

Like Cruz, I went to UC Berkeley School of Law (he graduated in 1958, I graduated in 1978) and began my practice in the Imperial Valley, 30 years after Cruz had served the Mejicano community there.

With me coming from the Valley where Cruz came to practice in the 1950s, the Reynoso connection was more personal. It is and was about family roots and how serving the Mexican communities in rural places related to the immigrant origins of our parents.

Cruz’s family history reflected migration from Mexico in the late 1920s from the state of Jalisco, from a village outside of Jalostotitlán, whereas mine were from Leon, Guanajuato and San Jose del Cabo, Baja California Sur. Cruz’s story includes his father having worked with the Union Pacific railroad, which was a common family story of many Mexican migrant families who came to reside in the Imperial Valley from the early 1910s to the 1930s. The Reynoso family made their way from Mexico through Arizona ending up in the orange groves of Orange County, living in the town of Brea. Thereafter, part of Cruz’s youth included migration as farmworkers through the Central Valley with his own parents, Juan and Francisca.

Like Cruz, my own father gave up his youth and schooling to migrate and pick crops with my grandfather (who had arrived with my grandmother to the Imperial Valley in 1925), and he continued a fruit picker until he went off to serve in the Army in World War Il and, through his military service, earned his citizenship.

Also like Cruz, my father used military service to leave field work and seek a better economic life, including better education for his children, away from the fields.

Agent of Change

Before I met Professor-Justice Reynoso, I knew of him because the local community where I was raised in the 1950s came to know him as the first Spanish-speaking attorney there.

Like Cruz, my upbringing was itself a social justice education. Reynoso’s story includes the discrimination suffered in rural La Habra, where mail service was different for Mejicanos compared to service provided their white neighbors. I too learned the racism of railroad tracks that divided small towns and about “knowing your place”—even without hearing words to that effect. Certain social truths were just understood.

Into that segregated and divided place came Attorney Reynoso, into our valley of small rural towns that had never known an attorney with a Mejicano last name.

Cruz was an early sign of more change coming to the Valley. My generation came to believe that higher schooling was for us too. In High School, two of my friends spoke of becoming “an attorney.” (I admit today that, even though I was a high-achieving student, I had to look up “attorney” in the dictionary, not realizing it was the same as “lawyer.”)

For my friends, the next sentence would include “Reynoso,” because at that time CRLA came to represent us in litigation against the High School, which had failed to respect our First Amendment rights to free speech when we wore “Chicano Liberation” buttons during the school day. Of the three friends, I became the lawyer. It was another Chicano Movement social justice impact—affirmative action that sent me to Stanford in 1970.

El Señor Cruz Reynoso

When I asked my parents about this man “Reynoso,” they would say “Ah, el Señor Reynoso...” and then they would speak to his local reputation. “Señor” in this context was the same word of respect as if it had been “Don Cruz” in another generation. “Señor” as in “gentleman”—for Cruz, it truly meant a gentle man, a gentle soul. Señor Reynoso was an “hombre de palabra... de valor,” a person of his word and a person who lives by values learned from life, not learned from a book. Or, as my abuela would say, “un hombre educado.”

Now I know, from my own friendship with and the mentorship I received from Cruz, that the nature of his humility was the indelible gift that set him apart from other persons of his generation.

In the Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge there is a distinction between two different forms of humility. In one, the image is of a humbled person—hat in hand, head bowed, the gesture less of respect than of being dominated.

The second definition of humility equates a human being to everything that is life: a human being is equal to the rock, the tree, the plant, to the earth. Those things are not there as a separate nature to be dominated or controlled. This humility is referred to as the “humility of a warrior.” A warrior does not humble others but is himself not dominated. He is no better than another nor is another better than he.

This humility of a warrior was Cruz’s humility. He did not let accomplishments like being the first Latino on the California Supreme Court change this quality that characterized how he interacted with lawyers, professors, and farmworkers alike.

The Imperial Valley’s “Legal Aid”

Before legal aid came into the Imperial Valley in 1966 with the opening of the El Centro CRLA office, Cruz Reynoso was “legal aid”—he was “CRLA” before CRLA even existed!

The Reynoso myth was that those Mexican folk of las colonias—the neighborhoods in the segregated east sides of El Centro and Brawley, where we lived when I was 7- 15 years of age—those residents went to the Reynoso home to get their “legal aid.” He made himself available on Sundays to dispense law from the home he shared with his wife, Jeannene. Cruz quickly became known for serving anybody who showed up at their doorstep and for their home being open for people to bring community issues to his attention.

At the time, people like my family had a limited image of “lawyer” as a person of the law. Not the police, yet someone who mediated between you, your family, and the criminal justice system—the criminal lawyer only. Never the lawyer who assisted in other legal matters, in civil life.

But Cruz showed those communities, in those early years of private practice with the Duddy-Reynoso Law Firm, that civil law could be a “friend” of people in poverty, a tool for that segregated community, a voice in the political and public discussion affecting their lives. His caseload included large numbers of Workers Compensation cases assisting injured farmworkers.

Cruz’s attitude had to have been formed by the way he lived his own segregated youth. Like Cesar Chavez would say, at some point along the way, “I took it personal”—that is, you take your personal sense of “injustice” and you convert it into social service, social obligation, social responsibility that when done effectively results in integration, equity, equality, and those civil rights remedies create a larger Social Justice.

Politics and Rural Advocacy 

Cruz joined CRLA as Deputy Director in 1968 and served as our second Executive Director from 1969-1972, following our founder Jim Lorenz. Cruz stepped into leadership at the height of political opposition during CRLA’s Office of Economic Opportunity / War on Poverty period.

Wins like challenging Governor Reagan’s Medi-Cal program cuts before the California Supreme Court (Morris v. Williams, 1967) generated much local opposition from rural bar associations, local welfare departments, and the State Bar. Political opposition from Big Ag soon followed when CRLA litigation halted the bracero program (Williams v. Wirtz, 1967).

Governor Reagan exercised the veto authority granted under the Economic Opportunity Act to cut CRLA’s funding. Cruz was at the forefront of CRLA’s defense and the federal Office of Economic Opportunity supported CRLA and overruled the veto.

Just as the CRLA of Cruz’s time faced rural political backlash because of its successful advocacy, so did CRLA during part of my tenure when the California Dairy Industry challenged CRLA’s successful dairy litigation. I was called to testify before Congress in 2004, supporting CRLA’s work with the CRLA Foundation and its litigation that allowed 17,200 people class relief through the use of state law.

We are still here, fighting for the rights and dignity of California’s most exploited and vulnerable communities.

Un buen hombre de gran corazon

For me and many other CRLA staff, Cruz Reynoso’s legacy showed that CRLA’s rural clients, including farm workers, deserved the most aggressive advocacy that we could bring in the defense of their labor, health, education, and public benefit rights even at the political risk of losing critical funding.

If we continue to believe that we each can give back, give of ourselves through whatever measure we decide—pro bono, donation, or other public service—if we undertake it selflessly so that others can reap the benefit of justice, then Cruz has served us well as the Justice Teacher. He was a gift to those of us so blessed to be taught by his example.

Compañero, fuiste un buen hombre de gran Corazon. ¡Que en paz descanses!

Jose Padilla
Executive Director
California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.

May 10, 2021



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