A wispy-haired octogenarian tried to slip quietly into Sacramento City Hall last week only to be greeted by a bold, brassy blast from a mariachi band and a crush of adoring fans.
More than 170 lawyers, judges, elected officials and community leaders had come to honor Justice Cruz Reynoso, who changed the destiny of thousands of Mexican immigrants throughout California and the nation.
Reynoso, 84, is anything but bold and brassy. He’s known as having a gentle, unassuming manner that’s rare for a lawyer of his caliber.
“I thought this was going to be a few intimate friends,” Reynoso said sheepishly. “I’m a little bit awestruck, a little bit embarrassed.”
The occasion for last week’s festivities was that the Sacramento chapter of the state’s preeminent Latino lawyers group, La Raza Lawyers, decided to rename itself the Cruz Reynoso Bar Association. Reynoso helped found the organization four decades ago.
Since the name change, about 50 Latino lawyers and judges, inspired by Reynoso’s example, have joined or renewed their membership, group officials said.
“Justice Reynoso has breathed new life into our organization,” said board member Luis Cespedes, whose grandson is named Cruz after the justice. “Cruz’s favorite line is ‘Democracy without participation is no democracy at all.’ ”
The boy who spent steamy summers picking grapes and plums in the Central Valley with his family and was told he’d never go to college rose to become the first Latino Supreme Court justice in California history and an adviser to presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.
Dean Kevin Johnson of UC Davis School of Law, where Reynoso teaches, called him a tireless champion of equal rights for all, including the years he spent fighting for justice for the rural poor “in the face of determined opposition from the highest levels of state government, including then-governor Ronald Reagan.”
At last week’s gathering, Reynoso was praised for his humility, “the most important trait a public servant can have,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, one of his mentees.
Reynoso assured the crowd he still has a strong “justice bone” and the heart of the “trouble making lawyer” who defended striking farm workers and advised civil rights icon Cesar Chavez.
Reynoso also helped draft one of the greatest immigration reforms in U.S. history – the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Reagan in 1986, which gave legal status to 3 million undocumented immigrants.
“When your justice bone is hurt very often you need to be a trouble-making person,” Reynoso told those gathered to honor him.
Reynoso became an activist at 11. It was then he realized the mail truck stopped at a white rancher’s house in Alta Vista, his Latino neighborhood outside the Orange County town of La Habra, but didn’t deliver mail to 50 Mexican families. They had to walk two miles to the post office.
Reynoso asked why. The La Habra postmaster replied: “That’s not my job; it’s the U.S. postmaster’s,” Reynoso recalled. So the boy circulated a petition and wrote the U.S. postmaster. Within a week, every Mexican American family in Alta Vista started receiving mail via home delivery.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Reynoso the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, noting Reynoso loved reading so much, his elementary school classmates called him “El Profe,” the professor.
“Profe was an insult,” Reynoso recalled. “I had several fights to protect my reading.”
Though he was told colleges would never accept a poor Latino, Reynoso graduated from Pomona College and the UC Berkeley School of Law.
Reynoso’s parents fled Jalisco, Mexico, during the Cristero War between Catholics and the revolutionary government. During World War II they took Reynoso and his 11 sisters and brothers as far north as Tracy to pick summer fruit.
“All of a sudden one morning everybody stopped working. It was a sit-down strike, and they told the field foreman they were being paid less per box than other growers were paying,” Reynoso said. “The foreman quickly agreed to pay the growing rate, and I was struck by the power of people working together.”
After serving in the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps during the Korean War, he began his legal career in El Centro, a small farming town near the border.
He met Larry Itliong, the Filipino leader of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, a group that launched some of the first farm workers’ strikes. Reynoso encouraged Cesar Chavez to return to the fields and join forces with Itliong to launch the landmark table-grape strike of 1965.
Reynoso helped found California Rural Legal Assistance, which for 50 years has fought for the rights of the rural poor, including before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We did a survey whether or not farm workers were getting clean water and chemical toilets,” Reynoso said, “found out 90 percent of the growers were not following these and other basic laws and filed complaints with county health officials, supervisors and county counsels.”
The legal group challenged federal agencies for not following affirmative action laws and sued over federal welfare laws “that actually discouraged people from working,” he said.
In 1981, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Reynoso, whom he called a man of “great intellect and integrity,” to the California Supreme Court and echoed those words in a letter Wednesday.
In 1986, Reynoso and Chief Justice Rose Bird were recalled by the voters for allegedly being soft on crime. Reynoso served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1994 to 2004, served on Obama’s transition team and inspired hundreds of rural Latino students, including Sacramento City Councilman Eric Guerra, who grew up in a shack in the rural Yolo County town of Esparto.
“My family and I were picking peaches and walnuts, and he came to talk to us about the importance of resilience. Si se puede!” Guerra said at City Hall, reciting the United Farm Workers’ motto in Spanish, which translates to “Yes, it is possible,” a slogan adopted by Obama for his 2008 presidential campaign, “Yes we can.”
“I wouldn’t be here without his support,” Guerra said.
Reynoso hasn’t stopped fighting. He teaches “Remedies,” a course at UC Davis Law School, on what the law can do to help average people.
“Now in California we’re doing quite well having various ethnic and racial groups get along and work together,” Reynoso said. “The majority of California residents are people of color; that’s what the whole country will look like in 30 years.”
That demographic shift has produced anxiety in less-educated Anglo Americans, he said. “And (Donald) Trump and others have been able to take advantage of that disenchantment,” Reynoso said.
He said the anti-immigrant sentiment is serious but will pass.
“(It) won’t be here 20 years from now,” he said. “The demographic changes are not reversible.”