Slow but Steady Approach Has Served Bustamante Well

Times Staff Writer

The towns where Cruz Bustamante grew up were little more than rest stops on two-lane roads that crisscrossed vast tracts of farmland and disappeared into the heat.

Here, in California’s breadbasket, a young man’s fate was largely determined by the shade of his skin.

In the early 1970s, the white students at Bustamante’s high school mostly joined the band and went on to college or took over their parents’ farms. The Latinos, a sizable and growing minority, worked the fields during summer and after graduation went to work on a city maintenance crew or county police force. The ones who “made it” got to the big city, Fresno, home to nearly 166,000 in 1970.

The grandson of Mexican immigrants and the first of six children, Bustamante managed to live on both sides of the divide.


“There was something special about him, the way he walked around campus,” said Tony Barajas, then a bus driver and now an administrator at the school, Tranquillity High. “He was what you call a true American. He wasn’t a Hispanic. He wasn’t an Anglo. He mixed with everyone.”

Growing up in a conservative region as his own family rallied for farm workers’ rights, Bustamante learned to balance competing interests. It was a skill essential in his rise to the near pinnacle of state politics.

Now 50, Bustamante is a leading candidate in the Oct. 7 recall election, seeking to become the first Latino governor in modern California history.

His steady approach to the issues, though, sometimes comes across as plodding, even bland.

“The thing he has a hard time with is that he doesn’t have a strong presence,” said Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, a community group. “Schwarzenegger has a lot of presence. Cruz is a simple person.”

Though often considered a moderate, Bustamante is not always easy to predict. He alienated Gov. Gray Davis when, as a new lieutenant governor, he publicly derided Davis’ efforts to mediate a court battle over Proposition 187, the initiative that sought to strip state benefits from undocumented immigrants. And he surprised some foes by standing up for agribusiness against environmentalists calling for greater regulation.

His strategy has mostly proved successful -- but not always with hometown voters. In last year’s race for lieutenant governor, the San Joaquin Valley favored his Republican opponent.

Born in Dinuba in 1953, then a town of about 5,000, Bustamante spent his first five years immersed in Spanish. But when his kindergarten teacher reported that he was lagging behind other students, his parents gave him their own crash course in English. “At that point, instead of being Cruz Miguel Bustamante, I became Michael,” he recalled. “And everybody was required to talk to me in English.”


Many relatives and friends still call him Michael. It wasn’t until junior high school that Bustamante started going by Cruz.

By that time, his Spanish had eroded. Years later, when he entered the state Legislature, Bustamante would spend a week each year in Mexico to make his Spanish good enough for the campaign trail and interviews with the Spanish-language press. “My Spanish is still not great,” he said.

About the same time Bustamante began his childhood plunge into English, his father spotted a business opportunity and moved the family from Dinuba across the valley to tiny San Joaquin. He opened the town’s first barbershop. Dinuba, though, remained the family hub. His grandparents lived side by side on South Q Street, and the Bustamante family would visit most weekends.

In 1946, a UCLA social scientist studying the effects of agriculture on rural communities declared Dinuba a utopia of conservative values. But many of the town’s Latino residents, who began arriving en masse in the 1950s to pick fruit and cotton, did not see it that way.


Until the 1990s, there were no Latinos in local government or on the school board. Most lived south of the railroad tracks. The children played in a park they called the “Tortilla Flat.” Neighbors remember Bustamante as a reserved and curious child.

“He was always very interested in us,” said Elaine Konatsu-Borjon, who grew up next door to his grandparents. “He was very quiet, and he liked to listen to stories.”

Bustamante recalls his parents working the harvests. “I grew up in the vineyard day-care center,” he said. “Or sometimes the orchard day-care center. Or sometimes in the packing house day-care center.”

By the mid-1960s, the farm workers’ rights movement, led by Cesar Chavez, was sweeping California. Bustamante’s parents signed up. It was an early education in politics for the children, who sometimes found themselves at meetings of farm workers or local government. “We’d do our homework in the back,” said Bustamante’s brother Ron, a 46-year-old high school teacher in Visalia.


Candidate Bustamante said his parents’ activism instilled his belief in a “social contract” -- that anybody who works hard has the right to a decent wage and benefits -- even if his family was branded radical.

“My parents believed at that time that workers should have the right to have water and a toilet,” he said. “And as a result of the unionization efforts that were taking place, people said some very harsh things about us in the community.”

When Bustamante was 17, his father, also named Cruz, ran for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. He campaigned as “Buzz,” a nickname he hoped would make him the man-on-the-street candidate. But his reputation for activism preceded him; the Republican candidate trounced him on election day.

The lesson was clear to his eldest son: A Latino candidate must be seen as more than a Latino candidate, especially in the conservative San Joaquin Valley.


All the while, his father remained the barber on Main Street, cutting the hair of people who had voted against him and taking in their concerns.

“My parents had a lot of dealings with very conservative people,” said a sister, Nao Bustamante, 39, a performance artist.

“We were below middle class, but we had all kinds of friends. We had middle-class friends. We had friends who were farmers. We had friends who were campesinos,” or farm workers.

But whites were in charge. The year Bustamante graduated, not one administrator and just three of the 40 teachers were Latino, despite a well-established population of Mexican Americans in the area and an influx of immigrants.


Bustamante managed to fit in. He played football and wrestled, posing stern-faced for the sports pages of his yearbook. And his parents made sure he had a trumpet to join the band, blazing a path for his brothers and sisters.

“He used to run around with the white crowd. They were the ones in the band,” said Cecilia Morquecho, a classmate who now supervises the school cafeteria. “Not that he wasn’t friends with us too. He was nice to everybody.”

Even his fashion reflected his split loyalties. His white friends wore surfer shorts. His Latino buddies favored black jeans and white T-shirts.

“The worlds began to pull at me,” Bustamante said. “My reaction to it all was to not dress like any of them, to have my own way of dressing and behaving and looking at people.... I basically told my friends ... that I have friends on both sides and that I wanted to maintain those friends.” So he wore army pants and desert boots.


The extent of his activism in high school was organizing a Cinco de Mayo celebration, commemorating the Mexican defeat of the French army in 1862.

His mother was a common sight at the school. “She devoted lots of time to the kids,” said Lloyd Talbott, a teacher. “She questioned what the school was doing, making sure that the kids were getting what they needed.”

Bustamante’s father became a booster for Latino kids in the neighborhood. “I remember in the 1960s, him getting us together and asking what we were going to do with our lives,” said Tom Payan, a Dinuba City Council member and lumber yard clerk.

Bustamante was determined to get out. Upon graduating from Tranquillity High, he made good on a pact with his pal John Navarrette: They were going to make it to college in Fresno. Both had worked summers as butchers, and though neither had any intention of making it his vocation, each joined a union-sponsored apprentice program to study meat cutting at Fresno City College.


Bustamante wound up going pre-med, but switched to liberal studies after what he now describes as “tremendous difficulty with chemistry.”

The following summer, B.F. Sisk, the local congressman, hired him as an intern in Washington, D.C. Bustamante packed up his old Toyota and drove cross-country. His mother, brothers and sisters worked overtime in the fields to send him $50 a week for living expenses.

“It seemed very exotic for us to have one of our family members go off to the East Coast,” said sister Nao Bustamante, who remembers eagerly awaiting his postcards. Her brother still speaks with awe of “being able to see this huge place that is the power and the center of the world, in Washington, D.C.”

In 1973, after two years of community college, Bustamante transferred to Cal State Fresno, taking courses in political science and public administration. He describes himself as “an average student.” School officials and classmates say he devoted more time to politics than his studies.


In the wake of Vietnam and the civil rights movement, student activists overran the campus. Like nearly all Latino students, Bustamante joined the campus wing of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan, which is a national organization that then sought to enroll more Mexican Americans in college and rallied for farm workers’ rights.

Political opponents in recent days have portrayed the group, which still exists, as militant and racist because it advocated the formation of a Chicano nation. The group’s literature in 1969 referred to “the brutal ‘gringo’ invasion of our territories” and the “foreigner ... who exploits our riches and destroys our culture.” The same literature also identifies education and cultural preservation as its aims, and students involved at the time say they did not seek a separate political state, only economic independence and equality.

“By the time I got there in the 1970s, pretty much the radical activity had abated,” Bustamante said. MEChA helped him become one of the first Latinos in the student senate and backed him in an unsuccessful bid for student body president.

“He got a lot of things done by not being radical,” said Tony Garduque, who was involved with MEChA at the time and now works as a school administrator. “In a sense, he got a little heat from the radical student leaders. He was more politically savvy.”


Canvassing for local Democrats, Bustamante was so involved in mainstream politics that by 1977 he still hadn’t graduated. After marrying a fellow student, Arcelia, who had a daughter from a previous marriage, he dropped out of school for a job with a youth employment training program. Later he took a staff job with former Fresno Rep. Richard Lehman.

Bustamante did not earn his bachelor’s degree until this May -- in a specially created major blending political science and ethnic studies. He earned his final credits in an online course.

Much of Bustamante’s family, including his parents, now lives in Fresno. His parents declined to be interviewed. Their son still makes it back occasionally to Dinuba, where city leaders have designated June 1 “Cruz Bustamante Day.”

This election, the Dinuba Sentinel, which usually backs Republicans, will endorse its hometown candidate. “There are some things that transcend political parties,” said the editor, Bob Raison. But the anti-abortion and anti-United Nations signs punctuating the roadside fields of fruit trees and grapevines are reminders of the conservative tradition that still defines politics there.


“I didn’t see him come back to Dinuba and do much for us,” said Dave Johnston, 54, a dedicated Republican who says he will vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger because he is “a guy who came with nothing and built what he has.”

Some Latinos from the “Tortilla Flat” days lament that Bustamante is not radical enough.

“But I understand the political reality,” said Victorio Rojas, who grew up in Dinuba picking grapes and now counsels disabled children. “Being from the valley, he found out he has to represent everyone.”