Rodrigo Espinoza came with his family from the world’s avocado capital in México to the U.S. as a 10-year-old boy in 1978. Now, nearly four decades later, he’s one of Merced County’s top-ranking public officials.
Espinoza, 49, first lived in Delhi as a young boy. He was fortunate to immigrate legally, he said. Once here, he attended Delhi and Livingston schools.
Growing up, he worked alongside his brother and parents in peach, cherry and apricot orchards from Los Baños to Patterson. His parents prospered from their hard work, making enough money to buy a house and eventually buy 20 acres of land in Delhi to farm themselves. Over the years, his father’s farming operation has grown to ten times the size.
“My dad was very conservative, financially,” Espinoza said. “And he never smoked or drank. We’re all the same.”
Espinoza earned a bachelor’s degree from California State University, Stanislaus in criminal justice. From there, he planned to become a California Highway Patrol officer, but changed his mind and enrolled in law school in Sacramento. He hated the commute, so in 1984 he started his own business.
1. What positions have you held as an elected official, and how long were you in each post?
“I started on a city advisory committee. From there, people said, ‘You should run for city council because everybody knows you.’ My dad was a labor contractor back in the 1980s, so everybody worked for us. They pushed me to run for city council in 2002, and I was elected. Then I was elected again in 2006. In 2010 I became mayor. I held that position for three terms. Last year, I became (county) supervisor.”
2. What made you interested in holding public office?
“I had no idea about government. I think we all say the same thing: we want to make a difference in the community. There’s always a need, no matter what times we’re in. I thought maybe I can try to be a facilitator with the language barriers. It’s 70 percent Hispanic here in Livingston. So, I decided to run.”
3. What have you learned since being on the city council and now the board of supervisors?
“It’s very hard. My main focus at first was to learn about how cities run and all services they provide the community so that way I can help the citizens. That’s what I’ve been doing all along since I got elected – whether it’s in planning or if someone wants to get a building permit.”
4. How else, besides holding public office, do you make your living? Can you give a brief description of your farming operation?
“My brother and I have 110 acres together in a partnership. My father has over 200 acres by himself. It’s kind of like a family business. We have our separate operations, but we run it together, wherever things are needed such as labor or equipment. We try to do a lot of the work ourselves with the employees. It’s more of a hands-on approach, and we’ve been able to be successful. I tell everyone wherever I go, if I can help out, that’s what I’m here for.”
5. What do you think about agriculture’s future role in this county?
“It is becoming very tough because of so many regulations. But I think farming will still be here. I’m afraid a lot of small farmers will be eaten up by bigger fish because they won’t be able to keep up with regulations, like the (Groundwater Sustainability Agencies), the permits to get water, and electricity. It’s become more expensive. The chemicals and equipment are very expensive.
“Sometimes people think farmers make a lot of money. I try to encourage people to start farming, but it’s becoming very expensive... We’re more dependent here in the Valley on farming. It’s good, and it’s still the biggest industry in the county. I think we need to bring more commercial business for us to be self sustaining. I’ve asked a lot of family farmers, and they understand farming can’t pay for everything. We need more regular jobs in different kinds of industries.”
6. What challenges have you faced to get to where you’re at?
“It was tough farming and being mayor, and now as supervisor. It was more of a challenge when I was mayor because even though it’s a part-time job, it takes a lot of time. I am really motivated when I’m trying to help the community, doing things like making sure the community has quality drinking water, the parks – making sure they’re very nice, the streets – I think we have very nice clean streets, sidewalks – we’ve been able to obtain different grants to do the sidewalks and make sure kids can go to school safely.”
7. Do you have any advice for young Latinos who have political aspirations?
“Yes – be engaged. The new generation is learning to be more outspoken, so that’s good. I encourage them to go to council meetings, planning commission meetings and to learn more. Even if you don’t, just to have the knowledge to help others in case somebody has a need with anything in the community.”
8. You have been vocal about immigrant issues, such as Health4All and sanctuary cities. What is your stance on these issues, and why?
“I’ve been asked to be supportive. (People) see me as focal person in the community. Health4all means a lot. I’ve seen and I’ve heard the stories about people dying because they can’t get health care. MediCal only pays for emergency services. I know there’s arguments that the undocumented don’t pay enough. A lot of them feel they do. I see it. A lot of the labor industry in California is done by the undocumented. They pay enough into the system that they should get health insurance. If SB562 moves forward, I hope it passes. Then it (health care) will be available for everybody.
“As for sanctuary cities, there’s a big labor shortage right now, and I think people will see that. In the end, it will be better for the whole state, especially Merced County. I think every business is facing a labor shortage. A lot of people have moved out of California and into different areas. They’ve headed north to Oregon, Washington, even Canada.”
9. What do you believe is the immigrants’ role in Merced County?
“Immigrants, it’s just like history. I think immigrants are only here to provide better living conditions to all our families. If they’re given the chance to be residents, citizens of United States, they’ll continue to provide even more for the economy of this country and California. I have to be supportive. I’m a first generation immigrant as well. If I can do it, anybody can. A lot of people can do it if they’re just given the opportunity. And, there’s always opportunity.”
10. What are your goals moving forward?
“Improving our economy in Merced County, Health4All, improving our roads, public safety. A big one is making sure now that we have enough water, making sure everybody has safe drinking water. I’m encouraged everyday. That’s why I don’t give up. I want to thank the community for supporting me and what I do.”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477