By MARIA INES ZAMUDIO • The Salinas Californian
October 17, 2008
In a room full of community achievement awards, trophies honoring his
commitment to social justice and newspaper clippings, photographs and
posters too numerous to count, Crescencio Padilla stood Thursday
afternoon holding one letter he keeps closest to his heart.
The letter was written Nov. 17, 1988, thanking Padilla and a group of
fellow Latino civil rights activists for holding a press conference
in support of a national grape boycott waged by the United Farm
Workers of America. The letter is signed by Cesar Chavez, the
legendary farm-labor leader and a UFW founder.
That letter now hangs in a wooden frame in a room in the back of
Padilla's house, which also holds more than 40 awards collected over the years.
But the letter is especially important to him because Chavez worked
endlessly for farm workers' rights and was a farm worker himself -
with which Padilla identifies.
"I heard about him and his nonviolence approach," Padilla said. "I
met him in 1970 and drove him around the labor camps in Salinas. I
walked the picket line with him. He was just an impressive and humble man."
Padilla worked in the agriculture fields with his father as a
teenager. And like Chavez, he has worked to fight against
discrimination and police brutality, and for equal education for
Latinos in Salinas for more than 30 years.
Today, Padilla will add one more honor to his collection: The
Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alisal Betterment Association.
The ABA, based in east Salinas, promotes civic involvement, and will
fete Padilla at its annual dinner tonight.
"He is committed to social justice," said Tony Barrera, ABA president
and a member of the Salinas City Council.
"He has always been there for the underdog, for those who don't have
money for legal representation."
Padilla was one of first members of the first local chapter of the
national League of United Latin American Citizens. He was
instrumental in pushing for Monterey County to adopt affirmative
action policies and in expanding bilingual services in Spanish and
English in the local schools.
He was at his brother Gilbert Padilla's side when he successfully
sued the city of Salinas for passing him over for a promotion in the
Salinas Fire Department, and he has helped scores of families
investigate and find legal representation in police brutality cases.
Padilla's caring has gone as far as taking in a homeless mother and
her five children until he was able to find a home for her.
"When I was growing up I remember him taking this family to live with
us," said his daughter, Martha Chavarria, who has carved an activist
niche of her own, being named LULAC's woman of the year in May at the
national convention in Washington, D.C.
"That was the type of person that he was," Chavarria said, "and he
instilled in me that passion and commitment to stand up for justice."
Padilla was born in Mexico City in 1935, his family moved to the
United States when he was 13. He did not know a word of English.
He started working with his father and all of his family in the
fields picking cotton and tomatoes in Texas. It was there he got his
first glimpse of racism and discrimination. Most of the farm owners
and Americans called him a "wetback," he said.
His family moved around Texas, Arizona and California as migrant
workers. They ended up in the Pajaro Valley where they picked strawberries.
Padilla said he stopped working in the fields in 1961. Several years
later he began working for Head Start in Castroville. He formed the
Concerned Parents Committee in 1971, a group organized around
educational issues in north Monterey County.
Padilla said he found more fuel to continue fighting discrimination.
When he became interested in becoming a plumber, he said he was
rejected from the apprentice process - because he is Mexican.
Soon after, he attended a LULAC meeting in San Francisco.
"That's exactly what we need," he told the 29 other members of the
parents committee. They also wanted to step up their efforts against
racism and other inequalities. In 1973, they became the county's
first LULAC chapter.
Since then, LULAC has helped hundreds of people on a variety of civil
rights and discrimination cases, while also conducting community
service work such as its annual Thanksgiving basket giveaway. The
local chapter was named LULAC's national chapter of the year in 1994.
"He has always been at the forefront," Barrera said. "He opened the
doors for other Latinos."
He retired from his job with the public defender's office more than
11 years ago. But Padilla continues to work on police brutality cases
and police-involved shootings.
He is writing a book about the history of the local LULAC chapter and
travels with Mercedes, his wife of more than 50 years.
Latinos have come a long way since he first took up the fight for
civil rights, Padilla said, but he still sees a lot of injustices.
"Despite all the victories that we have had," he said, "there is room for more.
"We must not forget that LULAC is a civil rights group, not a social group."