Jose Padilla of California Rural Legal Assistance retires

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Jose Padilla, executive director of California Rural Legal Assistance, speaks at an event in 2004. Padilla will retire after 44 years.

Vida en el Valle

Jose Padilla’s 44 years of justice work date back to a lecture by his grandmother in 1970. At a garden party to celebrate his high school graduation and acceptance to the University of Stanford, she dismissed Padilla.

“It doesn’t matter to me how important you become or how many important people you meet,” he recalled, telling her in Spanish. “Never forget that you always wear a cactus on your forehead.”

Padilla was shocked but mostly confused. He asked his grandmother for clarification. Padilla was, she explained, originally from the Imperial Valley desert and forever marked by the many cacti of that region.

“You come from ordinary people, hard working people, immigrants, so never forget those are your roots,” he recalled saying.

This moment led Padilla to devote her career to serving low-income and immigrant communities with California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit law firm serving low-income residents of rural California. He joined the organization in 1978 and six years later became its executive director. He remained in office for 38 years, running 17 offices and 75 attorneys across the state.

Under Padilla, the legal aid organization lobbied for passage of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, created new programs to help Indigenous farmworkers, and led advocacy for sexually harassed farm workers who brought multi-million dollar settlements. CRLA’s service population has also grown to 48,000 per year and the organization has expanded its advocacy to include foreclosure prevention, sexual harassment cases and LGBTQ+ issues. He became a pioneer in the legal world, known for his commitment to systemic change, his willingness to confront and his collaboration with other groups.

Now Padilla plans to retire in December. Members of the ACRL Board of Directors will conduct a national search to select the next Executive Director.

The Bee interviewed Padilla about his early advocacy, most memorable moments, future plans and how legal aid has changed throughout his career. Here are the main takeaways from the conversation. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What inspired you to advocate for rural and agricultural worker communities?

A: I grew up surrounded by farm workers, my aunts and uncles were all fruit pickers. More than once I went to the fields. And then you see how hard the farm workers work. Getting involved in the United Farm Worker movement while in college, doing some field work personalized this whole movement for me. So I thought about how I could get involved with Cesar Chavez and the union. And then I realized that the union had lawyers, and they had lawyers who helped them maneuver the legal system. I wanted to help people, immigrants. I wanted to help farmers. They are people like my grandmother, my grandfather and my father. So rural legal aid became that path and that career.

Q: Why have you stayed with California Rural Legal Assistance for 44 years?

A: I’ve always had this philosophy that once you commit to something, you don’t look back. My philosophy is when you’re going to follow a career path, as they say, “the todo“(you give everything) and so, I had this attitude that I would give everything I had. I have never regretted it. I feel blessed to have been able to give back to my community, that of the agricultural workers who raised me. And being a legal aid lawyer isn’t about making money. It’s about serving and practicing civil law for the rural poor, immigrants, and low-wage workers. and to secure their righteousness by law. This has been my blessing.

Q: How has legal aid changed over the years?

A: It must be more difficult today because over time the provision of legal aid has become highly politicized and restricted, and so to this day we have to work within this restricted environment. And ultimately the poor suffer because they don’t have equal access to the law. Rich people can go to court and assert their rights. And before, there was this vision of legal aid, according to which the poor also had equal access to the law, just like the rich. They no longer have equal access to the law. I call it demi-justice. You only get half justice because you can’t fully enforce your rights in court when you’re poor and your legal aid lawyer’s hands are tied behind their backs.

Q: What was one of the proudest moments in your career?

A: The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Wikipedia will give you a history. He won’t mention CRLA, but I sent a lobbyist, Mark Schacht, to Washington DC to work with Congressman Howard Berman to get this legislation passed. So we put in specific provisions that we called the agricultural worker provisions that said if you work a certain number of months in agriculture, you could apply for legalization. And it became law in 1986 and over a million people were legalized in this country through the amnesty provisions of the law. I consider this effort to be one of my greatest accomplishments, to have participated in the passage of this national immigration law. To me, this shows the kind of life impact you can actually have when you take advantage of your space for defending the poor.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

A: I am in the process of writing memoirs, so I will periodically write about different things that I remember in my life. I also plan to complete an oral history project that I started many years ago as a student at Stanford. I started this project in 1973 and interviewed 37 people who had immigrated to the Imperial Valley between the 1900s and 1930s. I plan to put these stories on a website so that people in the Imperial Valley, the Mexican community, their children and future generations can truly read the stories of those first Mexican settlers who showed up in this valley and were the basis of its agricultural development. And so those are the two projects that I think will allow me in retirement to do what I consider to be personally valuable work. On my desk at home, I have a little yellow post-it that says, “Tell the story before it dies, as promised.” So I promised these people that I would tell their story and I didn’t keep my promise. I don’t want to become a lying (liar), as we say in Spanish; that’s why I have to do it.

This story was originally published July 26, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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