Recalling Cruz Reynoso, a humble yet towering figure in Latino civil rights

It was with genuine sadness that the farm worker movement learned of the passing on Friday of former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.


As the only Spanish-speaking attorney defending farm workers and other poor Latinos in the Imperial Valley, Cruz Reynoso came to know Cesar Chavez during the 1950s when they were both parts of the Community Service Organization. Chavez became the national staff director of CSO, whose leaders such as Reynoso helped turn it into the largest and most active Latino civil rights group in California through the ‘50s and early ‘60s. “CSO was the best and most effective grass roots organization to which I have belonged,” Reynoso wrote much later.


Reynoso and Chavez maintained a decades-long friendship. Before the 1962 CSO convention in Calexico, Reynoso was one of the few people with whom Chavez shared his plans to resign and start building a farm workers’ union.


Both men dedicated themselves to helping farm workers in the 1960s. Reynoso focused on providing legal services as director of California Rural Legal Assistance, guiding the agency’s early years. Chavez led the United Farm Workers. They also both drew harsh resistance from California’s powerful agricultural industry and then-Governor Ronald Reagan.


Reynoso became the first Latino appointed to the California Supreme Court, named in 1981 by Governor Jerry Brown, who acknowledged the appointment was historic but added Reynoso was also “the most outstanding candidate I could nominate.” The only justice who had ever toiled in the fields, Reynoso was a passionate voice for field workers, the poor and underrepresented.


He was recalled in 1986—along with Justice Joseph Grodin and Chief Justice Rose Bird—by law-and-order and pro-death penalty critics. During the recall campaign Cesar Chavez drove up to Sacramento from movement headquarters at Keene near Bakersfield to convene a meeting with Reynoso, political strategist Richie Ross and former Chavez aide Marc Grossman to see if they could devise a strategy to help the Supreme Court justice survive politically. But Reynoso ended up refusing to actively campaign because he earnestly supported an independent judiciary.


In later years as a law professor and civil rights advocate, Reynoso consistently mentored and supported young Latinos, encouraging their legal careers. Those who knew him recall how this towering figure of Latino civil rights was unfailingly humble and gracious, even towards his opponents.


Reynoso never stopped championing farm workers. He penned a 2014 commentary piece with then-UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez in the Rosenberg Foundation’s online publication, Justice in California. They wrote about thousands of farm workers employed by Gerawan Farming Inc. who were deprived of millions of dollars in wages and benefits because the giant Central Valley grape and tree fruit grower refused to implement a union contract issued by a neutral state mediator. Gerawan wrote Reynoso a long letter essentially threatening litigation. Reynoso firmly pushed back in his usual courteous manner.


Image showing Cesar Chavez, Cruz Reynoso from the 2011 documentary Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice.