When noted historian Dr. Alex Saragoza tries to sum up the most recent decades of the Latino experience – some of which is personal to him – in the San Joaquín Valley, he points to a photograph of the late Judge Armando O. Rodríguez sitting in front of Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro and First Lady Mary Castro.
“Who would have believed this?” the Madera native asked during his final talk associated with the expansive Arte Américas exhibit ‘Caminos: Latino History of the Central Valley.’
Saragoza, the first director of Fresno State’s La Raza Studies Department after it was reinstated in 1971, noted the battles waged through the decades by farmworkers seeking better pay and working conditions, students fighting for Chicano Studies, and others seeking a level playing field.
“It’s a very, very complicated history,” said Saragoza during his hour-long presentation on Aug. 11 that covered the final decades of the ‘Caminos’ exhibit, which ends on Aug. 24.
“It’s not like all of us have written and have read books about the movement in Fresno, or that a textbook exists that has a large number of stories, paragraphs and so on about what was happening here in the Valley.”
Historians, when writing about the Latino experience, will mention the United Farm Workers and the work of its founders César E. Chávez and Dolores Huerta before moving on to write more extensively about what was going on in Los Ángeles, San Francisco or Texas, said Saragoza.
That, however, he added, does not mean that history was happening in the Valley.
Saragoza was right in the middle of that history when he was at Fresno State and allowed his office to be used as storage for picket signs used by students and community members to demand Chicano Studies at Fresno State.
“And for an historian, that’s very dangerous because you are tempted to kind of get yourself into the story,” he explained, “not necessarily that you’re going to talk about yourself, but because you were ther somehow that tends to emphasize certain themes as opposed to others.”
Still, it was and remains personal for Saragoza, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.
Back to the photograph and why it signifies the history of Latinos in the region.
“This picture captures a lot of that,” noted Saragoza.
Rodríguez not only became the first Latino elected to public office when he won a race for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, but his victory sent a ripple effect for others to follow in his footsteps, said Saragoza.
That, and other events, led to the appointment in 2013 of Castro, a Hanford native, to lead a university that a couple of generations ago had fewer than a couple of dozen Latino students. Today, Latinos account for half of Fresno State’s enrollment.
“For him to be in that position is unimaginable given what we saw, what many people faced during that period of time,” said Saragoza, who is preparing a book about the history of Latinos in the Valley.
“The spark was 1965 because most people of Mexican origin in teh Valley were at best one generation removed from picking cotton, peaches, tomatoes or whatever,” he said.
The Latino activists, where fighting on behalf of the UFW or trying to save a university program, got the kindling to “become more than just smoke.”
What many people don’t realize, he said, is that events happening elsewhere impacted the area.
For example, in 1973 during the first Israeli war, President Ronald Reagan imposed budget cuts that included the EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) less than five years after it was started at Fresno State. That forced students and their supporters to rally in support of the program.
Then there was the Mexican crisis of the 1980s that led to a surge of Mexican immigrants into the U.S., eventually leading to Reagan signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986.
“We were so focused on what was taking place here or in the state or in LA, that we didn’t pull back the lens” to other events, said Saragoza.
Those boycotts, picket lines and demonstrations did result in positive changes, he said.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Saragoza, rattling off some accomplishments.
▪ Latino graduation rates at Fresno State have increased, and the Latino Graduation ceremony is now outgrowing the Save Mart Center.
▪ Four Latinos sit on the Fresno City Council, and almost every rural community has a majority Latino city council or mayor.
▪ Latino faculty at Fresno State and Fresno City College continues to grow.
▪ Graduates are coming back to lead organizations
▪ Women started the League of Mexican American Women and plowed scholarships, just like the Association of Mexican American Educators and other groups.
▪ Latinos lawyers have their own organization (La Raza Lawyers Association).
▪ Latinas serve on the state Senate for the first time ever.
That, said Saragoza, might not have happened had someone not walked a picket line, or confronted a police officer, or joined an advisory committee.
“It wasn’t about who was going to play at the 16th of September celebration, or how the money from a fundraiser at the Pan American Club would be spent,” said Salazar. “Now, we’re talking about who we are going to support for city council, for the county board of supervisors. Why not one of us?”
So, is the movement over?
“I don’t think the movement is over,” said Salazar. “If we had to have a reminder, it happened last weekend (in El Paso).”
The ‘Caminos’ exhibit, which opened on March 3, was originally scheduled to run through June 30. All of the galleries exhibit certain periods of Latino history dating back to 1772.
Arte Américas, 1630 Van Ness, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The center will be closed starting Sunday (Aug. 25) through Sept. 4 in preparation for the next exhibit.
Parking and admission is free.