Until he died in his sleep at 82 on Sunday morning, Crecencio "Chris" Padilla was a fighter, always advocating for the little guy. It was while actively working on a case, helping a woman navigate an eviction, that Padilla had a heart attack; the woman drove him to the hospital, where he had open-heart surgery.
He was recovering well at home since Dec. 7, says granddaughter Erica Vickery, when he died around 1am on Dec. 24.
He told the Weekly in 2012 he planned to retire that year.
"He never stopped working," Vickery says. "He never stopped caring."
Padilla was a major force in the evolution of the local presence of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), of which he founded the first local chapter, in North Monterey County, in 1973.
Padilla recounted the history of local LULAC activisim in his self-published 2011 book, LULAC Legacy in Monterey County, detailing participation in criminal justice reform and police accountability, labor movement efforts and getting more local TV coverage of Latinos and representation of Spanish-speakers.
Padilla worked for California Rural Legal Assistance and then for the Monterey County Public Defender's Office as an investigator. His work on behalf of Lorenzo Nunez—who was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder— uncovered enough evidence to overturn Nunez's conviction. He was exonerated after six years in prison.
His views on the police evolved as relations between Latino activists and law enforcement officials warmed.
"I saw a lot of injustices with the police, how they falsified reports," Padilla told the Weekly in a 2011 interview. "For 30 years we had a lot of complaints [of profiling]; we’d ask them to investigate it, and they would find nothing wrong.
"In 1994, we had a press conference and said, 'We’ve got problems with police, but we have to help the police because we have a gang problem. We need to report crimes.'"
Padilla had a unique ability to bring often disparate interest groups to the table. That was recognized in 2012, when LULAC, the La Raza Lawyers Association and Alisal Betterment Association honored him with the dedication of a Lady Justice statue at the National Steinbeck Center.
His ability to build bridges was on display from the diverse speaker lineup for the dedication ceremony: Monterey County Superior Court Judge Albert Maldonado (now retired); County Supervisor Lou Calcagno (now retired, after representing North County for four terms); Monterey County Public Defender James Egar (who resigned last year); Honorary Consul for Mexico in Salinas Blanca Zarazúa; and Salinas City Councilman Tony Barrera.
"Grandpa only got mad when justice wasn't being served," Vickery says. "I don't remember him being upset with us. With us, he was a very funny guy, always making jokes."
Padilla was born on April 29, 1939 in Mexico City, and moved at 13 with his family to Texas, where they all worked in the fields. They next moved to Fresno, then in 1953 to Watsonville, and Padilla eventually made his home in Castroville.
To make a donation to the LULAC scholarship fund in Padilla's memory, contact Rabobank in Castroville, or send checks to MC LULAC, P.O. Box 1359, Castroville, CA 95012.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the following correction. The full name of LULAC is League of United Latin American Citizens, not League of Latin American Citizens, as first posted.