May 10, 2021

Justice Cruz Reynoso's Rural Life

By Lisa Pruitt

Cruz Reynoso, former California Supreme Court Justice and my colleague at UC Davis School of Law for two decades, died a few days ago at the age of 90.  Many are offering remembrances of Reynoso -- who the faculty and staff at the law school knew as just "Cruz"-- and it's interesting for me as a ruralist to see the number of references to "rural" in his life's story.  

Of course, Reynoso famously led California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the "first statewide, federally funded legal aid program in the country."  That was during the heyday of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta's organizing in the 1960s.  CRLA provides free legal services to farmworkers.  In California, "rural" is largely conflated with agriculture in the popular imaginary (though there are far less densely populated and more remote California locales than its agricultural valleys), and the organization's website articulates its mission as helping “rural communities because those communities were not receiving legal help.” 

The tumultuous history of that organization under Reynoso's leadership is recounted in a Los Angeles Times story

Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan repeatedly vetoed federal funds for the California Rural Legal Assistance while Reynoso headed the office and even signed off on an investigation that accused the nonprofit of trying to foment murders and prison riots (the investigation went nowhere).

Among other achievements during his leadership, Reynoso "oversaw eventually successful efforts to ban the short-handled hoe, which required farmworkers to stoop and led to debilitating back problems, and DDT, the deadly agricultural chemical."  

The Sacramento Bee reports on one of CRLA's big litigation victories under Reynoso's leadership, Diana v. California State Board of Education:  


It centered on Latino children who were incorrectly assessed by their school and labeled mentally challenged. The pupils were funneled into special education classes when, in reality, they were simply new English learners. CRLA lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students in the Monterey County town of Soledad.


“CRLA won a consent decree that allowed non-Anglo children to choose the language in which they would respond on IQ tests,” wrote the Salinas Californian in 2016. “It banned verbal sections of the test. It also required state psychologists to develop an IQ test appropriate for Mexican Americans and other non-English-speaking students.”

This column by Gustavo Arellano in the Los Angeles Times recounts Reynoso's childhood -- including early activism -- in Orange County, which then included significant rural stretches: 

[Reynoso's] family lived in a rural part of La Habra, where the Ku Klux Klan had held the majority of City Council seats just a decade earlier and Mexicans were forced to live on the wrong side of the tracks. Reynoso’s parents and neighbors had to travel a mile to the post office for their mail because the local postmaster claimed it was too inconvenient to deliver letters to their neighborhood.


Reynoso didn’t question this at first — “I just accepted that as part of the scheme of things,” he’d tell an oral historian decades later, in 2002.


But one day, a white family moved near the Reynosos and immediately began to receive mail. The teenage Cruz asked the postmaster why they were able to receive mail, but his Mexican family couldn’t. If you have a problem with this, the postmaster replied, write to her boss in Washington D.C.

And write a letter to the U.S. Postmaster General is exactly what Reynoso did.  According to a story released by UC Davis on the occasion of Reynoso's death: 

He wrote out a petition, gathered signatures, and successfully lobbied the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington, D.C., for rural mail delivery.

The obituary in the Los Angeles Times notes that Reynoso continued to live a rural life, even while working in Sacramento and Davis.  He "had a 30-acre spread in the agricultural Sacramento County town of Herald," population 1,184.The L.A. Times also reports that, as children, Reynoso and his 10 siblings worked summers in the fields with their parents. 

But the rural fact that leapt out at me most prominently was this line from the UC Davis story about what Reynoso did after finishing law school at UC Berkeley:

Justice Reynoso and his wife, Jeannene, moved to El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, where he started his own practice.


Today, Imperial County and El Centro, its county seat, are legal deserts--and they probably were back then, too.  Just imagine a UC Berkeley Law or UC Davis Law grad going to El Centro and hanging out a shingle in 2021?  It's nearly unthinkable, though a few probably go there each year to work for legal aid organizations like CRLA.  If it were more common to follow such a career path -- and for legal educators to prommote and honor those paths -- the Golden State would not be facing a rural lawyer shortage, with impoverished communities of vulnerable workers like the Imperial Valley suffering most as a consequence of that deficit.    


A Sacramento Bee column about Reynoso by Marcos Breton on the occasion of Reynoso's death features several remarkable photos.  These include one of Reynoso at the Herald property in 2000 with his then-young grandchildren; Reynoso was wearing overalls, a signifier of his rural authenticity.  The photo was taken by a Bee reporter the year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and previously published as part of the paper's reporting on that honor.  


Speaking of that authenticity, I always appreciated Cruz's frequent use of the word "folk" to refer to groups of people, or the populace generally. Indeed, I see the Spanish translation is "la gente," meaning "people, town, dweller."  For me, his use of "folk" provided implicit permission to use that word and its plural, both terms I'd grown up with but later excised from my professional vocabulary becuse I had thought them too colloquial.  


Cruz was as approachable to students as he was to faculty and staff.  We often saw him walking to the Silo (an eatery on campus) with a group of students for lunch.  And in my first year at UC Davis, 1999-2000, when Cruz was visiting from UCLA's law school, he gamely agreed to participate in a student-sponsored moot court event called "Battle of the Giants," which featured two professors playing the role of advocates in a mock appellate argument.  It took a while for the student organizers of the event to get someone to agree to be the opposing "giant" (eventually, I reluctantly agreed), but Cruz had not hesitated to take on this time-consuming task, one little valued by the law school administration.

 

Cruz was very gentle in how he engaged and educated people, which I believe often rendered him particularly persuasive. Many years ago, I heard him say to a group of students, in his typical, soft-spoken way, "No human being is illegal." This was at a time whne the phrases "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" were still widely used. Expressed in his calm, avuncular, matter-of-fact way, I'm sure he won over many, got them to think about the significance of language. It's quite a contrast with the ways in which so many in our educational institutions today "call out" or "cancel" each other in shrill and judgmental fashion, a tactic that often serves primarily to aggravate divisions.   

 

Given Cruz's commitment to students and education, it's not surprising that his family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UC Davis student scholarship fund "for legal access" that honors him and his wife