LULAC Look Back
Crecencio Padilla’s new book on the League of United Latin American Citizens is loaded with local civil rights history.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
T ransforming decades’ worth of news clippings, letters and notes into an accessible archive is no easy feat, but Crecencio Padilla has succeeded with his self-published LULAC Legacy in Monterey County, a comprehensive history of his involvement with the League of United Latin American Citizens.
The chronology begins with the formation of a local chapter in 1973 and highlights pivotal LULAC battles through 2008. Padilla’s opinionated, conversational narrative is supplemented with newspaper articles, photographs and copies of original documents that collectively tell the story of civil rights for Latinos in Monterey County.
Padilla spoke with the Weekly about his book and what’s changed in the past 40 years.
You open by writing about the beginnings of LULAC in Castroville. After a middle school student gave a 1971 graduation speech in both Spanish and English, a school board trustee said, “It was a disgrace to let it happen.” How important was that incident as a flashpoint?
Everybody was upset. It was really a slap in the face. We organized concerned parents and said we needed an organization that is going to speak up on civil rights. Those remarks, that was the focal point. That’s how we started.
You write, “It did not shock me that many Anglo and Italian residents were intolerant of the Mexican-American population in Castroville.” That was in 1969 and 1970, when Cesar Chavez came to this area, and you supported him. Is it better today?
Everything is changed now. Then, it was really bad. In 1969, they were shaking my hand and and saying, “You’re a good Mexican.” I was invited to join the Rotary Club. Then in 1970, when I was helping Chavez, I became a persona non grata. My name was mud.
But now it’s different; a lot of employers speak Spanish, they treat their workers better, the environment is friendly. I don’t see animosity like before.
A good deal of the book covers specific instances of police brutality or racial profiling. Now that gang violence is still a problem, how has that changed?
I saw a lot of injustices with the police, how they falsified reports. The police chief has changed a lot. 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.”
We dealt with racial profiling in North County and we had meetings in Castroville. Then Sheriff Kanalakis put a station in North County, and the relations became friendly.
What about the justice system more broadly? You write about a 1977 jury that convicted farmworker Pedro Ramirez for selling drugs, even though you believe he was innocent. And the nice shoes you encouraged him to wear to court ended up getting him convicted.
I knew it was bad, but not that bad—until I got a call from one juror. He said, “It was not a trial, it was a lynch mob.” A lady [juror] from Carmel had said, “All those Mexicans, all they do is sell drugs.” They said, “You can’t own a $100 pair of shoes chopping weeds.”
It’s better now. Before, there were nothing but whites on the jury, and any Latino was excluded.
In 1977, your brother, Gilberto Padilla, a Salinas firefighter, sued the City of Salinas for discrimination. Was that personal connection important to you early on in LULAC’s history?
We had helped other people before in discrimination cases, but then it happened to my brother. It was personal.
Every time he went for an interview [for a promotion] it was thumbs-down. At one point they asked, “What would you do if a firefighter says he wouldn’t take orders from a wetback?” That’s an insult.
It was a long struggle: five years, ’77 to ’91. [The City] lost twice, they even wanted to take it to the Supreme Court.
The city manager took it personally. Even after they lost, he said, “Your brother was not discriminated against.”
What’s changed about the farmworker struggle of the ’70s to the farmworker struggle of today?
Before, they were provided with homes. When they closed the labor camps, all the farmworkers moved to Salinas. They started living in garages with three or four families.
In ’91 I met with grower representatives and said, “Look, you’re not providing homes anymore. Why don’t you tax a penny a box to get a CHISPA [Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association] fund to build homes for farmworkers?”
[The growers] created a problem, because they didn’t want to.
You point out that most farmworkers today are undocumented, which is a change from times under the bracero program. What does that mean for workers today?
Most people, they don’t want to be working in the fields. When we came from Mexico, I was 13. We had no papers. Then we got our papers two years later. I worked in the fields here in California, for 85 cents an hour. From the fields I went to construction, and from construction I went to work for Head Start, and from Head Start I went to work for CRLA, then to the public defender’s office.
But a lot of people cannot move themselves from field work. A lot of people try to do better, but a lot of people can’t.
Let’s talk about the early turmoil within LULAC, and how that infighting is still playing out today, with a recall attempt brewing against County Supervisor Fernando Armenta. You write, during the Jesse Sanchez-Simon Salinas race in 1993, “I had grown disillusioned with the progress of our local chapter.”
That recall was just a move by Jose Castaneda. I don’t know him, but my opinion is he is raising hell for no reason whatsoever. Now look—he’s been prosecuted for lying.
He was prosecuted because he did something wrong, not because he was Hispanic; he’s not a victim. It’s really a shame. People think, “Look at this Latino. Once they get into power, it goes to their heads, they don’t know what to do with it.” He’s got to use power for positive things.
How active and relevant is LULAC today?
It’s my hope that if people read [this book], they get motivated and join LULAC and do something. You need an organization; even though there’s been a lot of positive change, there are still a lot of things to do. LULAC’s a civil rights group, not a social club. I hope that this young generation will look at that.
LULAC Legacy in Monterey County ($19.95) is available at Libreria Mexico, 913 E. Alisal St., Salinas. 754-1533.