Educator Tomás González founded El Colegio Popular to serve farmworkers

Tomás González of Colegio Popular speaks to more than 55 volunteers at a naturalization workshop at Fresno’s César E. Chávez Adult School in May 2007.
Tomás González of Colegio Popular speaks to more than 55 volunteers at a naturalization workshop at Fresno’s César E. Chávez Adult School in May 2007. Vida en el Valle

Dr. Tomás González – an original member of Fresno State’s La Raza Studies program in 1969 and a staunch Catholic – was a lifelong believer that education was a way to gain power, representation and respect.

González died April 13 in Fresno. He was 78 years old.

Funeral services are scheduled Sunday (June 14) at St. John’s Cathedral, starting at 10:30 a.m.

“While he did believe in charity, he believed in people being able to empower themselves. And education was a way for that to happen,” said Gloria Campise, one of six surviving children.

González, who grew up in Detroit, moved to Fresno in 1969 to take a job teaching ethnic studies at Fresno State.

The native of Nuevo Laredo, México graduated from Wayne State University with a degree in sociology. He was involved with the United Farm Workers chapter in Michigan. His father worked in a steel mill.

Farmworker leader César E. Chávez, center, attended a graduation ceremony for Colegio Popular. Special to Vida en el Valle

“He wanted to be where the Chicano movement was,” said Campise. “When he was offered the (Fresno State) job, he quickly accepted.”

The university cancelled that program in the middle of the semester during the middle of the Chicano movement.

That’s when González co-founded La Universidad de Aztlán and later Colegio de la Tierra. He and co-founder Narciso Vargas visited Catholic parishes in the region and collected $50,000 to start the school.

They recruited students at farm labor camps.

“My dad told me that the public schools were not serving Latino students, they were not helping them get into colleges, or to have access to high education,” said Campise.

La Universidad de Aztlán eventually closed, and González went on to earn a degree in community studies at UC Santa Cruz. He later earned a master’s and a doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley, then returned to the San Joaquín Valley where he started Colegio Popular in 1988.

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Tomás González sits for an interview at Colegio Popular in 2000. Vida en el Valle

The non-profit organization, working with the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, was credited with helping more than 100,000 immigrants meet English requirements for immigration amnesty under the 1985 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Colegio Popular also helped more than 7,000 people gain citizenship through courses so they could pass the naturalization tests. He organized literacy and English as a Second Language courses at 35 parishes.

Farmworker leader César E. Chávez attended one of Colegio Popular’s graduation ceremonies.

In 1999, González became the first Valley resident honored by the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center for his immigration advocacy.

González was a regular on KNXT, the Fresno Diocese television station. He served as coordinator of peace and justice affairs for the diocese.

“He definitely could have taken jobs at universities,” said Campise, who remembers sitting in classes with him.

González, said Campise, enjoyed being an educator.

“Education was basically everything. It was our personal freedom, access to the world. It was a way to make changes in the world,” said said. “Education was very, very important to our father.

“We were encouraged to go to college, but he also encouraged trade. He want to a vocational school in Detroit. He valued that as well.”

González, she said, was also a big reader.

“He loved reading books. He always had a book in his hands. Shelves full of books. We all had books everywhere.”

González is survived by six children: Juan González, María González, Ernesto González, Tomás César González, Miguel González, and, Gloria González Campise; and, seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife, Enriquesta Limas González.