THE BLOG
11/28/2016 04:25 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2017

California Rural Legal Assistance Celebrates Fifty Years

This week, California Rural Legal Assistance celebrates fifty years representing poverty-impacted clients in rural California. Rather than expound on the effect of CRLA on California's farm workers that can be reviewed in "The Struggle for the Health and Legal Protection of Farm Workers - El Cortito" this note focuses on one new attorney's arrival in rural California in 1968 to represent the poor.
While I was a third year law student, riding home from a San Francisco anti-war demonstration, my schoolmate Ralph Abascal urged me to work the summer with a group of Ivy League Lawyers coming to California to assist farm workers as part of Prsident Johnsons' War on Poverty. I spent the summer in McFarland just south of Delano, I experienced the harsh life of farm workers, met Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta and left the San Joaquin Valley committed to changing the living conditions of those who put food on our tables.
After graduation from law school, we packed our few belongings and headed south to Salinas. Half block past Salinas High School I pulled into a driveway on Main Street marked with a small sign "California Rural Legal Assistance." While I sat in the parking lot adjacent to the small stucco office generating courage to walk into the office for the first time, a stocky Latino appeared. "Are you the new lawyer?" he asked.
I nodded.
Offering his hand when I alighted, the youth introduced himself, Ladislao Pineda.
"You a lawyer?"" I asked while we walked across the parking lot toward the office entrance.
"No Man, a combination investigator and interpreter," he answered. "They call me a community worker."
We walked into the office where I met the receptionist Angie Valenzuela. Like many legal service offices it was adorned with an old wooden desk, a second-hand Naugahyde couch, and randomly placed folding chairs resting on a linoleum covered cement floor. On a corner coffee table stood a single-bulb lamp and pamphlets printed in English and Spanish: How to Apply for Public Assistance, How to Handle Your Own Case in Small Claims Court and You Can Live on a Budget. The tiny lawyers' offices each had an old wooden chair a second hand desk, and a bookshelf. The only set of books expressing California codes or laws and the only set of books reporting the courts' interpretation of the codes were crammed into a nine by twelve storage room in the rear which served as the library. Except for the codes and opinions a retiring private attorney had donated and the legal texts CRLA layers purchased themselves, the only place we could find he law applicable to the varied legal problems that brought us clients was the county law library on the second floor of the courthouse half-mile away.
A year before I even heard of California Rural Legal Assistance, a young lawyer, Jim Lorenz with O'Melvany and Myers, the largest law firm in Los Angeles convinced President Johnson's staff in Washington D.C. to open nine law offices spread across rural California to represent farm workers. Lorenz recruited Boston lawyer Gary Bellow to join in the adventure. Meanwhile, Martin Glick, a slender idealistic magna cum laude at Ohio State who saw his future as a tax lawyer but was working for the justice department trying civil rights cases in the South, met Bob Gnaizda who worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Glick and Gnaizda became friends and instead of Glick joining Gnaizda at the IRS doing tax law, Gnaizda agreed to join Glick in the South where Glick was working on a case the Justice Department filed against deputy sheriffs in Mississippi who murdered civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman until Glick received a phone call at the Holliday Inn in McComb, Mississippi from Gnaizda. Jim Lorenz had recruited Gnaizda. Instead of Gnaizda joining Glick in Mississippi, Gnaizda told Glick they were going to California to end the abuse and exploitation of farm workers. Glick and Gnaizda ended up with CRLA in Salinas.
When I arrived in Salinas, I already knew that my classmate Ralph Abascal was starting to work in the Salinas office. Since neither Abascal nor I had received bar exam results, the only licensed attorney in the office was Marty Glick. Within months, Denny Powell, a Notre Dame attorney who had worked in the Madera CRLA office since it opened a year earlier, Bill Daniels a CRLA attorney who worked in the McFarland CRLA office since it opened a year earlier, Dick Gonzalez the first Spanish -speaking lawyer in the Salinas office, and Harvard law school graduate Dave Kirkpatrick joined us. Soon, I met Cruz Reynoso the new CRLA Director at a Peace Corps intensive Spanish program and found myself at the Catholic church parish hall in Soledad, thirty miles south of Salinas representing clients with Hector De la Rosa the community worker who taught me about the living conditions of farm workers, and brought to the office the children who we represented with Glick's skill and experience in an effort to terminate the labeling of Spanish Speaking children mentally retarded because they scored low on English-administered IQ tests, and farm workers forced to engage in stoop labor who CRLA represented to convince California's Supreme Court to ban the short-handled hoe that was crippling hundreds of thousands of farm works forced stoop all day to thin and weed crops with the short hoe.
Over the past fifty years, CRLA's initial staff has moved on. Governor Jerry Brown placed Cruz Reynoso on California's Supreme Court and many CRLA lawyers joined Jerry Brown when he became Governor of California. Over the past fifty years, CRLA has continued to represent hundreds of thousands of farm workers living a cruel life in poverty. Today, their efforts continue.