At Age 80, Trailblazer Keeps Fighting For Justice

Sep 28, 2011
Originally published on September 28, 2011 12:58 pm

The award-winning documentary Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice is airing on public television until October 15th in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Director Abby Ginzberg chronicles the remarkable life of Cruz Reynoso, a trailblazer in the legal system and a champion of agricultural workers. He was California's first Latino Supreme Court justice and one of America's first Latino law professors. President Bill Clinton appointed him as Vice Chair on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1994 and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. Reynoso's career also included controversial relationships and encounters with labor activist Cesar Chavez and then-California Governor Ronald Reagan.

Early life and education

Cruz Reynoso was born to a family of migrant farm workers in Brea, California. He had 10 siblings. His family often traveled north to pick crops, to make ends meet.

At the time, many boys in migrant farm families quit school at age 16 to work in the fields, and Reynoso's mother expected the same for her children.

But Reynoso pursued a different path: education. He won a scholarship to Pomona College and earned a law degree in 1958 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was the only Latino to graduate in his class.

Activism begins; the California Rural Legal Association

Around that time, Senator Robert Kennedy brought national attention to the issues of farm workers by holding Senate subcommittee hearings about labor abuses in California's Central Valley.

Young lawyers who were inspired by Kennedy's call to lift poor agricultural workers from poverty formed the California Rural Legal Association (CRLA). But all the original members were white, something that CRLA leaders saw as a barrier to the organization's effectiveness. The group felt it needed more Spanish-speaking lawyers who could directly communicate with farm workers. They also needed a leader who could connect with both those workers and government officials. That leader was Cruz Reynoso. He became the group's first Latino lawyer, and later rose to become director in 1969.

At the time, the farm workers movement was launched by Reynoso's former colleague Cesar Chavez (they worked together in the early 1960s at the Community Service Organization). Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the United Farm Workers Union. Chavez lead boycotts, marches and nonviolent demonstrations — and thought CRLA would be committed to his agenda. But Reynoso insisted that CRLA remain independent, and act always as lawyers, not organizers.

Battle for CRLA's survival

After becoming California governor, Ronald Reagan accused CRLA of undermining the rights of agricultural business owners and using the organization to interfere in politics. He attempted to cut off almost $2 million in federal funding for the organization. The fight gained national attention and lasted three years.

"The battle about CRLA was more of a part of national battle to try to restrict the ability of lawyers to adequately represent poor people in legal services," said University of New Mexico Law Professor Jose L. Martinez in the film.

But CRLA prevailed, largely with the help of Reynoso.

Becoming a professor; facing controversy as a court justice

Then in 1972, Reynoso began teaching law at the University of New Mexico. He became one of the nation's first Latino law professors, and devoted tremendous energy to bringing more Hispanic students and staff into that institution. Reynoso said in the film that he imagined spending the rest of his life teaching there.

But back in California, Ronald Reagan's term as governor expired. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, rose into the position that had been held by a Republican for eight years. Brown offered Reynoso a seat on the California Court of Appeals. Reynoso accepted and spent the next six years there.

In March 1982, Reynoso was appointed to the California Supreme Court. Several of the court's subsequent rulings favored rights of employees, criminal defendants, consumers, and the poor. At a time when the death penalty was a heated issue, the court affirmed most convictions, but not the death sentences of several inmates. Critics accused it of being soft on crime..

As Chief Justice Rose Bird came up for reconfirmation in 1996, conservative opponents wanted to change the Democratic court's direction. They needed three new conservative justices to accomplish that, and launched a campaign against Bird, Reynoso and Associate Justice Joseph Grodin.

"All of those who were attacking the courts were Republicans. The Democrats were so afraid of the death penalty issue that none of them came to our support," said Reynoso in the film.

Golden Gate Law School Dean Dru Ramsey added in the film, "The people who were attacking the court were people who were politically motivated, who did not really care at all about the role of the judiciary or an independent judiciary — an impartial judiciary. What they wanted were people in those seats who would vote the way that they wanted them to vote."

Bird, Grodin and Reynoso were ultimately ousted. But that did not stop Reynoso from fighting injustices.

Honored by President Bill Clinton

In 1996, President Bill Clinton appointed Reynoso to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, then awarded him the Presidential Medal of Honor in the year 2000.

During the award ceremony, Clinton remarked on Reynoso's remarkable journey from a poor childhood, to the top of his profession: "As a child, he loved reading so much, his elementary school classmates called him 'el profe' — 'the professor.' Later, some told him to put aside his dreams of college, saying bluntly, "They will never let you in." But with faith in himself and the values of our country, Cruz Reynoso went onto college and to law school but never forgot his roots."

Continuing his fight for justice

Today, Reynoso is 80 years old and teaches law three days a week at the University of California, Davis.

A UC Davis law student featured in the film, Walid Kandeel, said, "It's been great to have Professor Reynoso as a professor at law school because of the way he engages students in issues of race and social justice. I came to law school and wanted to be a public interest lawyer, and to hear all the great things that he's been able to accomplish in that field is absolutely inspiring for me as a young attorney getting started in that field."

In an interview with NPR's Jacki Lyden, Reynoso said he keeps going because he's done it all his life.

"I think it's good if you have a pattern of activity that works for you, and I've always felt that as long as God provides a mind that works and a body that works, you're better off being active," said Reynoso.

He remains involved in government and law in California. For example, he serves on one commission that is trying to improve the state government in California, and another that is investigating the fatal shooting of a farm worker by undercover police officers.

"So I'm active in many fronts, and I'm very pleased to do that. It deals with the reality that in any society, there are going to be people who have resources and political influence, and they like it that way. And there are many people who lack those important items in society. So it's up to us who have a little bit of training to try to equalize matters somewhat," said Reynoso.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.

Finally today, we explore a new film about a trailblazer in the world of law and order. As the son of migrant farm workers, Cruz Reynoso was inspired to champion the rights of the world poor and to fight against discrimination and inequality. He rose to become an influential legal scholar, California's first Latino supreme court justice and later a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

In the year 2000, Reynoso was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton, who praised Reynoso for his remarkable journey from poverty to success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

President BILL CLINTON: Cruz Reynoso is the son of Mexican immigrants who spent summers working with his family in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. As a child, he loved reading so much, his elementary school classmates called him el profe, the professor. Later, some told him to put aside his dreams of college, saying bluntly, they will never let you in.

But with faith in himself and the values of our country, Cruz Reynoso went on to college and to law school, but never forgot his roots.

LYDEN: Reynoso's remarkable life and accomplishments are chronicled in the award-winning documentary "Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice." It's being broadcast on public television until October 15th in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

And joining us now to talk more is Cruz Reynoso himself and the film's director, attorney Abby Ginzberg. Welcome to the program.

CRUZ REYNOSO: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

ABBY GINZBERG: Thank you for having us.

LYDEN: Professor Reynoso, what did you think of the film when you saw it for the first time?

REYNOSO: Well, it's a little bit humbling, I must say, to have one's life pictured somewhat as a hero when I really never considered myself to be that. I just considered myself doing the things that seemed natural when you saw injustices, to try to do something about it.

LYDEN: Abby Ginzberg, how did you first meet Cruz Reynoso and why did you decide you wanted to turn your attention to making his story into a film?

GINZBERG: I met Cruz back when, probably, when I was a lawyer myself, which was the first 10 years of my career, from like 1975 to 1985. And the reason I actually decided to make this film is because he was just essentially doing the right thing as he advanced in his career, and to me there was a really important story that I wanted to share that both I knew about - I knew about his background and I knew about, you know, the fight to save his seat on the supreme court.

And I felt like there were some really important lessons for today in Cruz's life and in his story.

LYDEN: Professor Reynoso, I'd like to talk a bit about your early life and education. You were one of 11 children and your family worked on a farm in California, but you took a different path. At one point, you wanted to be an artist and instead, you went into law school at UC Berkeley.

Were you the only Latino in your class?

REYNOSO: I was, actually, the only Latino in my class at law school and, indeed, when I graduated, I could count the number of Latino lawyers in the fingers of two or three hands. We weren't very well represented in the legal profession at that time.

LYDEN: Why did you wind up taking this route instead of the artist in you?

REYNOSO: Either late high school or early college, I had seen so many injustices growing up. I attended a segregated school, like what they'd call a Mexican school in those days. I saw young people discriminated against and, as farm workers, we used to travel to central California around the Fresno area to pick fruit and so on and I saw the injustices that farm workers went through.

And I saw, on one occasion, my father arrested - improperly, it seemed to me - but worse, as the officer was putting him in the car - and my dad was a quiet, dignified gentleman - and the officer kicked him in the rear as he put him in the car. Those things just were such great injustices that I felt that I could do more about it as a lawyer than as an artist.

LYDEN: Abby Ginzberg, I'd like to talk about the California Rural Legal Assistance Organization called the CRLA. It figures prominently in your film, but people who haven't seen it may not know about it.

Now, Cruz Reynoso became its first Latino director and one of the group's greatest victories was that it led California to ban the short-handled hoe. And here's a clip from the film. And it gives a sense of why something like this that may sound a little obscure really mattered to the workers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CRUZ REYNOSO: SOWING THE SEEDS OF JUSTICE")

GINZBERG: It kept farm workers' nose to the ground and it kept them bent over. It really gave that message that you're not really an important person. You're inferior. It was another one of those humiliating and oppressive situations for workers. But, even more, it really injured their health.

LYDEN: The ban on the hoe happened on April the 8th, 1975. Abby Ginzberg, when I saw that I thought I was seeing something almost from a previous century. But the commentators in your film say about the symbolism of this ruling?

GINZBERG: One of the things that was really important is that nobody was calculating, you know, the incredible physical disability that was occurring to large numbers of people who were bent over for many days, many months, many years in a row. And there's one person in the film who talks about, you know, how her back was never the same after using the short-handled hoe. So it was a huge victory and it really saved farm workers health, which was what it was all about.

LYDEN: Professor Reynoso, the CRLA, which we visit a lot of the movie, worked really hard to give poor farm workers a voice in the justice system. And I'm wondering if you see other groups today were being denied legal justice, and that is still playing out, you think there's correspondence despondence there?

REYNOSO: Well, it's sad to say, I see a great many groups being denied equal justice. It's not just farm workers. It's poor people generally that don't have the resources to hire lawyers to represent them well. So to me it was just a wonderful experience to be able to work with CRLA to be able to have the resources to hire experts and so on to really represent the farm workers the way they should be represented. Though I must say many of the cases that we won we want because the violations of laws were so clear that once we got into court we really couldn't lose.

LYDEN: Do you think that today it is any easier for poor people to take cases to court?

REYNOSO: It's easier for those who have the resources of the legal services programs. In California for example, 95 percent of the divorce cases are filed with what we lawyers call pro per, that is by the individuals because they can't afford to hire a lawyer to help them. And I see the results of that. It's sad for the clients. You know, we had, the legal services programs were established during the War on Poverty, President Johnson's War on Poverty. In just four years the number of poor people was reduced by three million in this country. So it's a successful program in part because of legal services. To the extent that those legal services had been not supported by our governmental entities, I'm afraid that the farm workers and other poor have suffered.

LYDEN: Abby, what do you think about the rights of the poor and access?

GINZBERG: Yeah. I think that the issue of access to justice for basically, you know, middle income as well as poor people in California is under an unbelievable threat right now. If you go down to a courthouse in San Francisco you will see people lined up from six o'clock in the morning to file what ever case they have that they need to file by themselves, and often they'd never get to see the inside of courthouse or a courtroom for many days, sometimes weeks. And this is, you know, as you mentioned earlier, this is the result of the fiscal crisis of the California courts. But it is obviously going to come down worse on the heads of poor people - and even now middle income people who can't afford their own lawyers - for many of the cases. So in landlord-tenant cases, in divorce cases, in small claims court cases, the need is tremendous, and there are fewer courtrooms, fewer judges, fewer court clerks, so this crisis is bearing down I would say really on the society as a whole and there's got to be some kind of response.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about the documentary "Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice." It's about Cruz Reynoso, a trailblazer in the judicial system. And he joins us along with the film's director, Abby Ginzberg.

Abby, in the 1970s, when Cruz Reynoso became one of the nation's first Latino law professors and started teaching at the University of New Mexico, what did your research tell you about the influence he had in that post?

GINZBERG: Well, it was very important. This was, you know, this was a time when this school was kind of a two front war, whatever. You know, an effort going on on two fronts. One was that they were trying to diversify the student population and Cruz played a huge role in that once he got to the University of New Mexico. And because there is such a large Hispanic population in New Mexico, I think the school was sensitive to the fact that they really needed to bring in some people of the same background as the students that they were also eventually going to be bringing in.

One thing that I also think it's important is we've got to go back to what Cruz said, which is when he graduated from law school in 1958, there were a handful of Hispanic lawyers in the country. You know, by the time he was teaching in New Mexico in 1972 to 1974, there were more people who could do it but they didn't really have the role models. So Cruz became in this other way in his life, you know, as a law professor, a role model for Hispanic law students across the country who began to think of themselves as potentially, you know, following an academic career. And without Cruz in the lead there that might have been a much slower story.

LYDEN: Professor Reynoso, in March of 1982, you rose to the California Supreme Court. And many critics later said that they thought that the court was too soft on crime, and this clashing of law and politics ultimately led to a very bitter recall effort, which is explored in this film. Could you tell us exactly what happened and how you felt about that? And I'm talking, of course, about the campaign to recall Chief Justice Rose Bird and you and your colleague Justice Joseph Grodin.

REYNOSO: Yes. Under the California system, we initially had to be confirmed by a three panel to take our positions as justices of the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court. But what happened during that time was that certain economic interests - let's put it that way - particularly insurance companies were unhappy with really 40 years at least of experience with the Supreme Court in being very protective of the consumer, being protective of the environment, being protective of civil rights, and they were awaiting a time where they could show their displeasure.

And then at that time, too, the death penalty was very important politically in California. So basically we have a combination of the folk who accused the court of being soft on crime based on the death penalty and the economic interest. So the economic interest had the money and we had for the first time ever in California a multimillion dollar campaign to discredit the Supreme Court. Sad to say the attacks in my view salacious, as happens in political campaigns. So for example, we were accused of not following the law.

I used to tell people if I believed half of what they're saying about me I'd vote against me because judges are supposed to follow the law. For example, they gave the impression that we were releasing prisoners or those accused of crime after they were convicted and therefore, there were all these criminals out in the street. Even in a death penalty case the reality is that if there is a reversal, the person has already been convicted of a crime that has with it at least a penalty of service in the prisons for life. So nobody ever was released because we reversed a death penalty case. And further, there had been an initiative that was declared to be unconstitutional later. So we were reversing several of those cases and we were then accused of being soft on crime.

The reality was that we affirmed over 90 percent of all the cases that came to the Supreme Court, criminal cases because the courts did a good job. So the attacks on the court were completely false and I took it as a political attack on the court, not an attack based on our performance as judges.

LYDEN: Abby Ginzberg, you follow the Cruz Reynoso's career after he leaves the judiciary and returns to academia. And, of course, Professor Reynoso, you're now teaching law at UC Davis. I'd like to play another clip from the film. And this time we'll hear from one of your students Waleed Condio(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CRUZ REYNOSO: SOWING THE SEEDS OF JUSTICE")

WALEED CONDIO: I came to law school and wanted to really be a public interest lawyer to hear all the great things that he's been able to accomplish in that field is absolutely inspiring for me as a young attorney just getting started in that field.

LYDEN: You explore Professor Cruz's academic career. How has the atmosphere evolved in terms of the diversity and the faculty and the students surrounding him?

GINZBERG: Yes. I think, as I say, I think that Cruz made a big contribution by being a role model both for the students, particularly Hispanic students, but all students interested in pursuing careers in civil rights and social justice, as well as for students who were interested in - particularly for Hispanic students - interested in pursuing academic careers. And I think he opened doors that have remained open, and today we have many more Latino law professors. And except, you know, when there have been big cutbacks on diversity programs etcetera, we also have many more Hispanic law students.

LYDEN: Professor Reynoso, I want to note that you are 80 years young and you're teaching classes three days a week. That's a lot of work. You also I think spend time on your farm. So what's it like? What keeps you going? You don't have to do this.

REYNOSO: Well, I keep going because I've done that all my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REYNOSO: And I think it's good if you have a pattern of activity that works for you and I've always felt that so long as God provides a mind that works and a body that works you're better off to continue being active. So I'm involved with several matters; with one commission which is trying to redo the state government of California because we've become rather ungovernable here also. I'm involved with another commission that's exploring why some undercover officers shot a farm worker to death. So I'm active in many fronts and I'm very pleased to do that.

It deals it seems to me with the reality that in any society there are going to be people who have resources and political influence and they like it that way. And there are many people lack those important items in a society. And so it's up to those of us who have a little bit of training to try to equalize matters somewhat because the best society is one where there is not a great deal of difference in income, in resources, in education. And it's up to those of us who can do a little something about it to try to equalize that reality in our society.

LYDEN: Abby, in making this film, what else did you learn about Cruz Reynoso?

GINZBERG: Well, I learned that both in making the film and in our work in, you know, getting to fill out into the world, one of the things that Cruz talks about whenever we go out, and it's something that I just want to underscore, is the importance of citizen participation. One of the things that he stresses every time we go out is how important it is for people to be active in their local communities, whether it's in the PTA or some local community board or some other issue of meaning to folks.

But, you know, he complains and I would stand with him on this, about people simply thinking that if you go to work and come home you've done enough. And he has been somebody who is a role model for me about what it means to be an active citizen. We all have a duty to do more as citizens to improve the society in which we're living.

LYDEN: Abby Ginzberg is the director of the award-winning documentary "Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice." She joins us from San Francisco, California. Cruz Reynoso is the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court and one of the first Latino law professors in America. He's currently a professor of law at the University of California at Davis, and he joined us for Sacramento. Thank you both very much for being with us.

REYNOSO: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GINZBERG: And thank you for having us.

LYDEN: The documentary about Cruz Reynoso is airing on public television until October 15th in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, and we'll also have more information on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, then on TELL ME MORE. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.