By: Leonel Martinez
As a kid growing up in Lamont in the 1970s, almost all the adult Latinos I knew were farm workers. I assumed that’s all we could do.
But one day, I spotted a campaign sign for a young Mexican-American running for the State Assembly, and the world changed. I realized Hispanics could also hold powerful positions in society.
That name on the sign was “Ray Gonzales,” and he had launched a campaign that would make him the first Latino to be elected to state office from the San Joaquin Valley. With only two Hispanics in the state Legislature, none from conservative Kern County, victory seemed impossible.
Gonzales shocked the state and won. And in doing so, he cleared the path for other Kern County Latinos to win election in the decades to come. Now 80 years old, and in failing health, Gonzales remains a political warrior with a heart for justice.
“I studied for the priesthood and I studied with the Holy Ghost fathers,” said Gonzales in a telephone interview from his home in Oceanside, where he has moved to be closer to his children. “I had already committed to help the downtrodden. It was kind of easy to transfer my goals and desires to civilian life, where I kind of felt like, ‘I’m still doing God’s work.’”
I didn’t meet Gonzales until 1990s, when I was a reporter for The Californian covering his third and last political campaign against incumbent Mary K. Shell for 2nd District Kern County Supervisor. He lost that race and left town to work for the foreign service and Peace Corps and finally teach at Cal State Monterey Bay. I didn’t see him for years.
After he retired from teaching in 1997 and I left reporting, we bumped into each other again and formed a fast friendship. We had lunch probably two dozen times over a two or three year span and during that time Gonzales virtually taught me a college course on Kern County politics and history.
One of my favorite stories was about when Gonzales had the gumption to turn down iconic labor leader Cesar Chavez in 1971.
The problem was that United Farm Workers’ President Chavez - who has since been embraced with a state holiday and a national monument in his honor - was a much-maligned figure some labeled a communist. One politician claimed Chavez and Gonzales trained guerillas in the hills near the UFW headquarters in Keene, preparing for a revolution. Accepting Chavez’s endorsement, he realized, might scare away conservative voters.
“He said, ‘What can I for you?’” Gonzales recalled. “I said, ‘I need your troops, I need your support … but an endorsement wouldn’t be helpful.'”
In that first political race, against GOP incumbent Assemblyman Kent Stacey in the 28th Assembly District, Gonzales faced steep odds. But his strategy was to run as a college professor, not a Hispanic activist. To do otherwise, he was certain, would be political suicide.
Only 8 percent of his constituents were registered Latino voters. So he stitched together a coalition of Hispanics, African Americans and educators, knowing that was his only chance.
His office had a payphone installed because they didn't have the $800 deposit for a private line, and the whole campaign cost only $20,000. Although Gonzales won, he lost reelection and calls the initial win “a fluke.” Yet, there were other victories.
Born and raised in Bakersfield, Gonzales became the first Latino faculty member at Bakersfield College in 1965. Later that decade, he became president of a group that successfully battled for more minority television reporters. He also staged a picket of the Bakersfield City School District board to force the hiring of the district’s first Hispanic principal. It succeeded.
But I always felt his most important victory came when he formed the Kern County Latino Redistrict Coalition to successfully carve out political districts with a majorities of Hispanic voters. That effort resulted in several Kern Latinos for the first time being elected to office at the state and county levels. The trend has continued.
“That had an impact,” Gonzales said. “It’s ongoing. It took the lid off something.”
Gonzales took a last teaching job at Cal State Bakersfield, where he always requested approval for classroom changes even though he had decades of experience, according to Mark Martinez, head of the Political Science Department.
“When did he get his Ph.D.? Probably when I was 9,” said Martinez. "I’d say, ‘Ray, you know what you’re doing.’ He’d say, ‘No no, you’re the boss.’”
I was with Gonzales at a reception welcoming him as an appointed trustee for the Bakersfield City School District in 2015. He posed for snapshots, grinning and joking, back in elected office for only the second time and 43 years after his first election.
Soon after winning reelection unopposed, Gonzales began experiencing problems related to diabetes and hemodialysis, and he resigned.
Since then, Gonzales’ health has worsened. He depends on others to get around. The political warrior is weary.
“Now, I can’t even sit up in my own bed,” he said. “I run out of gas. I’m tired.”
After almost half a century doing battle to improve the lives of others, Gonzales now reflects often on his own death. When his battles are over, how would he like to be remembered?
Gonzales paused for a few seconds before responding.
“He was a local boy who liked to do good and accomplish some things when he believed something needed to change.”
Leonel Martinez, a Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield graduate, is a technical writer for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office and a former reporter and columnist for The Californian. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.