By Scott Herhold | San Jose Mercury News
One of the most profound meetings in San Jose history occurred on the evening of June 9, 1952, when a wiry community organizer named Fred Ross knocked on the door of 25-year-old Cesar Chavez and asked him to become a leader of his people. Chavez’s home, at 53 Scharff Ave.in East San Jose was part of a tough and often forgotten Latino neighborhood known as “Sal Si Puedes” (“Get Out if You Can”), a place lacking paved roads and sewers. In one two-block area, there were 125 cases of dysentery.
When the plight of the Mexican- Americans who lived in Sal Si Puedes was mentioned at county headquarters, it generally evoked shrugs. The feeling was that money put into streets or sewers would be wasted. Sal Si Puedes did not have many votes.
The meeting between Ross and Chavez changed all that. It inspired one of the most famous labor organizers in American history, a man who went on to lead the United Farm Workers. And it laid the foundation for local groups such as People Acting in Community Together (PACT) and the labor-affiliated Working Partnerships.
Until recently, Ross has been seen as the less prominent partner in that meeting. He generally avoided the limelight before his death in 1992. But now a new book, “America’s Social Arsonist,” by Oaklandbased writer Gabriel Thompson, recounts Ross’ career and his huge impact.
He was an unlikely radical, a white kid from Los Angeles who went to the University of Southern California and spent enormous time as a 20-year-old lifting weights at the beach. In the cauldron of the Depression, he turned leftward, and at the end of World War II, he helped Japanese-Americans resettle on the West Coast.
By the time he knocked on Chavez’s door with a nurse named Alicia Hernandez as a translator, Ross was a veteran of the Southern Californiabased Community Service Organization, which had fought for better schools and voting rights for Mexican-Americans. He wanted to expand the CSO to San Jose — and he saw Chavez as an organizer.
Chavez himself was a reticent but unbending young man whose father had lost the family home near Yuma, Arizona, in the Depression. Like a lot of other Mexican-Americans, he had followed the fruit, picking plums in Gilroy and grapes in Delano. He had only an eighthgrade education. Interestingly, both men left a less-than-wholly believable account of that meeting, which had been set up through translator Hernandez, a friend of Chavez’s wife, Helen. Chavez told his biographer later that he had first taken Ross for a phony do-gooder, and invited a few of his rougher Spanishspeaking friends with the idea of showing the gringothe door quickly. By this account, Chavez prearranged a signal for Ross’ ouster: If Chavez shifted his cigarette from his right hand to his left, that was the signal to boot him out. “The more he talked, the more wide-eyed I became, and the less inclined I was to give the signal,” he said.
Chavez’s brother, Richard, told author Thompson later that the cigarette story wasn’t true. But there is no question that Ross’ pitch to Chavez — which involved how to build political power and register people to vote — had a huge impact. “He changed my life,” Chavez explained later to his biographer, Jacques Levy.
A born leader
I asked Thompson whether he thought that Chavez would have emerged as a leader even if Ross had not knocked on his door. “It’s hard to imagine that Cesar wouldn’t have ended up doing something important with his life, due to his incredible drive and curiosity,” he responded. “But I think Ross influenced what that something would be — an organizer.”
For his part, Ross later told a couple of interviewers that he had returned and written in his journal, “I think I’ve found the guy I’m looking for.” He made no such inscription. But the statement was true anyway: Chavez and a colleague, Herman Gallegos, worked the streets as “bird dogs,” registering Mexican- Americans who had never voted before.
It was the beginning of a legend, and Thompson gives a good account of it. You can buy his book, which is printed by the University of California Press, on Amazon.com.