Cruz Reynoso, a path breaking American of Mexican and farm worker roots, appeared last night at the Mill Valley Film Festival, to answer questions after the film bearing his name: Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice, by Bay Area director, Abby Ginzberg. In a country in which Caesar Chavez is more often thought to be the Mexican boxer than the Mexican-American labor leader, Reynoso’s name doesn’t ring many bells. In fact, Reynoso and Ginzberg asked a class of 60 high school juniors who had come to see the movie for a show of hands of those who knew who Lyndon Johnson was. Not a single hand went up. Which is why, Ginzberg said, she had put an ID under the former president’s name when he appeared in the movie.
Reynoso grew up in a farm worker family. His mother planned that her oldest sons would leave school at age 16 and contribute to the family income. When Cruz and his older brother decided to go on to graduate high school and then to college she was known to tell neighbors, “Look how lazy they are. Instead of being out there working they’re still reading books.” Reynoso went on to Boalt Law School and a small practice in El Centro, California. But that was just the start. He joined the Community Services Organization [CSO] and helped register Hispanics to vote along with the young Cesar Chavez. He was the first director of the California Rural Legal Assistance [CRLA] and only Hispanic; certainly the only lawyer who had actually done farm work. He led the CRLA through the concerted attack by California Governor Ronald Reagan and his agribusiness allies and was director when the back breaking short-handled hoe was outlawed. After several years of being the one of the first Latino law professors in the United States, and having his own small 2 acre ranch in New Mexico, the new Governor of California, Jerry Brown, appointed him to the California Court of Appeals — first Hispanic Judge. You get the picture.
Ginzberg’s film shows Reynoso in three major moments of his career, always under girded by his family and little farm, whether in New Mexico or California. The CRLA is the first chapter. His 6 years as Appeals Court Judge was followed by 5 years on the California Supreme Court. It ended when he and Joseph Grodin were denied reconfirmation along with the main target, Rose Bird, after a blistering campaign by right wing forces. Chapter three began some years after Reynoso’s retirement. In 1994 he was named by President Clinton to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where, as the 1999 election of George Bush was sealed by disputed election count in Florida, he sent investigators on election day itself, and participated in the only official hearings of fraud charges ever to take place about that vote. As he says: Not the Senate, not the House, not the Department of Justice ever investigated what went on there.
As he said in the movie, and repeated afterwards in the Q&A — the election was fraudulent, corrupt and not the result simply of election day troubles. It was something that had been planned and carried out to deprive people of their right to vote. At 80 years old, and only 6 months after a near fatal automobile accident, he was still furious during the Q&A about the endangerment to American Democracy by the elected officials of Florida and the US Supreme Court. If for no other reason you should see the movie for this reprisal of Reynoso’s part in history and the mark of his unwavering integrity.
The underpinning of his life are wonderful shots of him with this animals, all moved from New Mexico to California when he joined the Appellate Bench. He talks to the cow, the peacock trails majestically in front of him, an old horse responds to his touch.
This is a very good film of one of America’s lesser sung heroes; may the movie help change that. DVDs are available. Buy one for your local Library. Watch for it locally and help get it into local schools where it may strike some chords with today’s young.