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Writer: By Donna Johnson


Born May 2, 1931 in Brea, California

As a youngster in La Habra’s barrio Alta Vista, Cruz Reynoso learned an early lesson in the importance of speaking out to make a difference in his family's life.

The postman would not deliver mail to their rural Mexican-American neighborhood, and the residents had to walk more than a mile to the downtown post office to pick it up. When the son of a prominent farmer built a home in the middle of an orange grove near their barrio, the postman drove all the way to the new house in the rural area but not the block or two more to the barrio.

“This lack of service bothered my justice bone, and our teachers taught us that the government should treat everybody equally,” Reynoso said in a recent interview. Then 11 or 12 years old, he went to see the postmistress about rural delivery to the barrio. She said the Post Master General in Washington, D.C., was responsible for that decision and gave him the address.

The youthful Reynoso prepared a petition and went from door-to-door to gather signatures from each barrio household. Although all the adults signed the petition, Reynoso said their smiles indicated they were just humoring him without much expectation that it would succeed. A few weeks later, the rather surprised boy received a typed acknowledgement, addressing him as “Mr. Reynoso.”

A month or two later, the neighborhood received notices in their mailboxes to prepare for receiving rural delivery – confirming for the young Reynoso that government does respond to an injustice when those involved speak out, as his teachers had taught them.

Discovering the power of using words to right a wrong set him on a path as a civil rights advocate, shaping his childhood school days, Fullerton College experiences in 1949-1951, pursuit of further studies and a lengthy career in law, education and public service.

“I guess I’ve been sort of a trouble maker all my life – as a child and as a lawyer,” Reynoso conceded with a broad smile, recalling his post office story during an interview on campus last fall, as part of the Fullerton College Centennial Celebration project.

The son of a farm worker father who had a full-time job, Reynoso was born in Brea in 1931. When he was 7, his family – which eventually included his five brothers and five sisters — moved to the barrio on the edge of La Habra’s orchards, where he soon learned about hard work.

“My first job was picking oranges. I was so little I could only pick oranges at the bottom of the trees,” he said. “As I flew in this morning, I looked out and saw these acres and acres of houses. It’s so different now.”

Reynoso said that he and his two older brothers were told they had to attend Wilson School so they could learn English. “But we already spoke English, so we quickly figured out it was a segregated school.”

Not wanting to be known as a smart kid, he remembers trying very hard to not do well in class. However, in the fifth grade, books captured his attention and he started doing very well. My older brother, Amado, loved reading too and also taught me art.

“My mother would say to her friends: ‘Look how lazy my boys turned out to be. Instead of working, they’re reading books!’ Books were not part of my parents’ world.” While in high school, Reynoso joined several friends to speak to the La Habra district superintendent about segregation at Wilson School. Initially reluctant, the school board eventually called a parents meeting to announce its decision. There was a huge turnout of both Hispanic and Anglo parents at the meeting, with the audience bursting into applause when the board said it had voted to desegregate.

“We were very proud of ourselves that we ended the segregation,” Reynoso added, saying the trustees responded to the feelings of the people.

In those days, he said, there was generally an expectation that Mexican boys would leave school at age 16. He and his brother were the first in the Reynoso family to go on to Fullerton Union High School. A high school art teacher noticed Cruz had talent and helped convince his parents to let him attend Fullerton Junior College, just across the street, pursuing his interest in art and cartooning.

But a speech class turned out to be the most important that first semester. The speech teacher recommended Reynoso be chairman of the first freshman class meeting – working with an agenda that called for nominations and an immediate vote for the class officers. An amazed Reynoso was elected freshman class president.

“It was truly a community college. There were many kids from Fullerton High and some kids expected the community college would be a glorified high school. But I thought the atmosphere was quite different – we were preparing to go on to higher education.”

That spring, he ran for and was elected the college’s first Latino student body president and took office in the fall, according to Adela Lopez, FC’s ethnic studies department coordinator.

“It allowed me to travel up and down the state and meet many other students. It was quite a good experience,” Reynoso said.

Carol Rich Dodson, a classmate of Reynoso’s at Fullerton High and the college, also served with him on a student government commission. Thumbing recently through her 1950 and 1951 Torch yearbooks that included many pictures of Reynoso, Dodson said she really enjoyed working with him. Dodson also fondly remembers that she went with Cruz to their sophomore year-end party and proudly displayed the message he wrote when he signed her annual.

Prior to his FJC graduation in June 1951 with an Associate of Arts degree, Reynoso connected with advisors at Pomona College. He was offered a scholarship to complete his upper-division classes at Pomona, this time majoring in pre-law and concentrating on “really good grades, because that’s what I needed to get into law school … I’d gained a taste for the law through my student government experiences.”

He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Pomona in 1953, then joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Counterintelligence Corps for two years. His assignments while stationed in Washington, D.C., included reviewing the House Un-American Activities Committee files on applicants for potential federal jobs, which created an interest in civil rights.

Following his military duty, he enrolled in UC Berkeley’s School of Law and received his Bachelor of Laws degree in 1958, opening the door to his career in the judicial field and teaching college students. In 1958-59, he studied constitutional law through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the National University of Mexico. After passing the bar, he opened a private law practice in El Centro, Calif.

His first full-time job was teaching at the University of New Mexico – becoming one of the first Latino law professors in the country.

Reynoso continues to make his mark in the legal field, which has included the following appointments and honors:

  • 1969-1972 – Director, California Rural Legal Assistance program, first Latino to hold the position.
  • 1972-76 - Professor of Law, University of New Mexico,
  • 1976 – Appointed to the California Court of Appeal as an associate justice, the first Latino appointed to the court.
  • 1982 – Appointed to the California Supreme Court as an associate justice, the first Latino appointed to the court. In November 1985 -- in a controversy involving the court’s majority rulings that extended environmental protections, individual liberties and civil rights – voters rejected new terms for Chief Justice Rose Bird, Associate Justice Joseph Gordin and Reynoso.
  • 1986 – Returned to private practice
  • 1991-2001 – Professor, UCLA School of Law
  • 1994-2004 - Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
  • 2000 - Hispanic Heritage Foundation Award in Education
  • 2000 - Presidential Medal of Freedom, highest civilian honor, awarded by President Clinton
  • 2001 to today – Professor of Law Emeritus, University of California, Davis
  • 2010 – Documentary “Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice,” produced by Abby Ginzberg, first screened in Washington, D.C.; featured on PBS-SoCal in 2011-12

Reynoso said that looking back on his life as an activist, he doesn’t know the source of his tenacity and drive. But at 81, he still speaks out against discrimination and teaches one semester each school year at UC Davis.

The 30 acre farm near Sacramento where his four children grew up surrounded by animals is still in the family. His wife of 53 years, Jeannene, died in 2007. Reynoso has remarried, and he and his wife, Elaine, live in Davis where he enjoys time with his 17 grandchildren.

Reynoso frequently travels for speaking engagements, saying “I have no interest in a traditional retirement. I learn from students; that’s the advantage of being a professor and judge.”

In April 2013, Fullerton College Centennial Celebration will salute the achievements of Cruz Reynoso as an inaugural member of its Hall of Fame.

Alumni Strories: Cruz Reynoso

“I have no interest in a traditional retirement. I learn from students; that’s the advantage of being a professor and judge.”

—Cruz Reynoso