El Protector retires, leaves iconic face

FRESNO -- Roy Huerta never thought that a picture of him in cool, dark-black shades, denim jacket and white tennis shoes would become an icon.

He is the man behind the picture of El Protector, a safety program the CHP launched in 1987 in an effort to promote safer driving habits in the Spanish-speaking community.

"It was a program that was much needed at that time. The statistics revealed that Hispanics were No. 1 on the list when it came to hit and runs, traffic violations and driving under the influence, so we needed to figure out a way to reach out to this community," said Huerta, who retired earlier this month after 28 years with the CHP.

Huerta -- along with Jorge Chaídez and Central Valley CHP Division chief John Anderson -- wanted to find a Mexican icon that would draw the attention of the Latino community. Anderson wanted someone like Zorro.

"I wanted something that was mysterious, but recognizable like lucha libre where no one knows who the man is behind the mask, but people still know he is a man wearing a mask," said Huerta.

All three wanted it to be an icon that would reach the average person.

"We wanted him to be someone that kids could emulate. So in the end, we gave him the denim jacket, white tennis shoes--because they were affordable and comfortable--and the shades because it gave him that serious look we were looking for," said Huerta.

He attributes the program's success to the photo and the effort his colleagues placed on El Protector.

"There were times I worked 100 hour weeks, sometimes on the weekends, jumping around from city to city, visiting different communities up and down the state. In 28 years that I worked as a CHP officer, I only called in sick four times," said Huerta. "I loved my job."

Huerta was instrumental in jump-starting the El Protector program, the CHP's second-longest running public affairs program next to Sober Grad.

El Protector officers reached out to the Latino community in Spanish and English about the perils of driving under the influence, how to avoid traffic violations and what to do in case of a traffic accident. Officers would visit predominately Spanish-speaking communities and initiate a dialogue where people could ask questions and be comfortable dealing with law enforcement.

The efforts showed. In its second year, the percentage of accidents involving Latino drivers decreased 38 percent. Fatalities involving Latino drivers decreased from 65 percent to 33 percent.

Police departments across the nation started their own because of the program's success in California. Among the first states were Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Oregon.

The El Protector image was printed on T-shirts, notepads, pencils, brochures and stickers.

Huerta credits those materials for encouraging community members to get engaged.

"Every time people would come to our booth, it was a game show. We asked questions and we gave them prizes and they were learning along the way so it was a win-win for us. Not only were we educating the population, but they were having fun in the process and winning some really cool stuff," said Huerta.

Huerta's major challenge, at first, was that he didn't speak fluent Spanish.

"If it wasn't for Officer Chaídez taking me under his wing, I would have never learned how to communicate with the Latino population," said Huerta, who grew up in Woodlake.

"I had no clue what I wanted to do growing up. I was a popular kid in high school and I played sports, but I wasn't the straight-A student nor the one that failed. I just didn't know what I wanted out of life," said Huerta, the fifth of nine children born to immigrants from Morelia, Michoacán, México.

Huerta attended Porterville College for a year, then dropped out to work as a grocer, welder and mechanic. He also worked at a creamery and liquor store.

"My parents didn't really know how to guide me, but I couldn't blame them. All they knew was how to work hard," said Huerta.

"They always said to me, 'Don't you ever envy anyone in this life. You have two hands and a good head on your shoulders. You are capable of working just as hard as anyone else.'"

Already in his 20s, Huerta was "incredibly unhappy." His oldest brother had moved to San José to become a sheriff's officer, and would boast about his job and how much he loved it during visits to Woodlake.

Huerta didn't think twice when his brother suggested he try law enforcement.

"The closest thing I could do was go into the Navy, so I did that and became an oral surgery technician but after the experience, decided I did not want to become a dentist," said Huerta.

After the Navy, Huerta became a CHP officer. He was a sergeant in Bakersfield and Fresno, then a lieutenant in Ventura, San Francisco, Fresno and Madera. He was most recently captain in Madera and Fresno.

CHP Sgt. José Gutiérrez, a longtime friend and current supervisor of the El Protector program in the Central Valley division, said Huerta always had "a reputation for being a very dedicated and hard-working individual."

"There is absolutely no doubt that every day he came to work, he gave it 110 percent," said Gutiérrez.

Huerta plans to focus on remodeling his home, spending time with his grandchildren and helping his youngest son get to college.

He also plans to spend more time with his wife, who was a single mother of four when he first met her in the early 80s at one of the many program community events he hosted in Fresno.

"She told me that I inspired her to get an education and do something with her life," said Huerta.

"I never thought she would become the woman that she is now-educated and successful with four amazing kids who really admire her. I admire her too, just never thought she would end up being my wife," he said.

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