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Activist’s Persistence a Driving Force in Boycott

Times Staff Writer

Three days before the planned nationwide boycott for immigrant rights, one of its chief local organizers was still working the crowd.

At a Mexican fast-food restaurant Friday in Ontario, Jesse Diaz Jr. urged two Latino laborers to skip work and march today in downtown Los Angeles. The sell was met with polite nods until Diaz threw out a wisecrack:

“They want our food,” he said between bites of a bean burrito, “they just don’t want our people.”

The ultimate measure of Diaz’s recruiting ability will come today, as Latinos decide finally whether to boycott work, school and spending for the day.

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As an original member of the March 25 Coalition, Diaz, 42, helped orchestrate the massive march through downtown Los Angeles last month in protest of a federal bill that would make illegal immigrants felons and fund a 700-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, Diaz, a doctoral candidate who also works as a landscaper, has emerged as an unlikely player in a burgeoning movement -- a man who mows lawns in between planning marches.

Diaz and journalist Javier Rodriguez are widely credited with enlisting Spanish radio DJs to spread word of the March demonstration, which attracted an estimated 500,000 people.

Since then, Diaz, a fourth-generation Mexican American, has appeared on CNN and crisscrossed the country as the movement’s de facto spokesman. But his role in calling for today’s boycott has made him a controversial figure.

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Built like a linebacker and sporting a handlebar mustache, Diaz was one of seven kids raised in a Seventh-day Adventist family in Chino. Although his family had to scrape to get by, his parents taught him to help those less fortunate.

His father, Diaz recalled, housed immigrant workers in a backyard trailer and nudged them to start their own catering and printing businesses. His mother took in needy people she met at church.

Diaz went through difficult times before becoming an activist. A heroin addict who was in and out of jail for drug-related crimes, he said he got his life back on track in his 20s.

By then a father of four, Diaz returned to his father’s trade, landscaping. He enrolled at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga in the late 1990s, about the time he and his wife, Virginia, first met.

“I think that my husband has a lot of courage,” Virginia Diaz said last week, “He talks to people, and they hate right back at him.”

As a scholarship student at Pitzer College in Claremont, Diaz interned at the Pomona Day Labor Center in 2001 and developed his penchant for activism.

Inspired by Jose Calderon, a professor of sociology and Chicano studies at the college, Diaz studied Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona and helped battle employers who stiffed their day laborers.

Diaz worked with Calderon on a three-day march from Claremont to Los Angeles to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s repeal of a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. He fasted with other students to organize cafeteria workers, Calderon said, and performed political theater for farmworkers.

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“I know what it’s like to live in the shadows, man. I can feel it,” Diaz said. “That’s my connection to these folks. I know what’s it’s like to live day by day.”

After graduating from Pitzer in 2002, Diaz went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology from UC Riverside, where he is now a doctoral student. Initially, Diaz said, he held on to his gardening gig to stay in touch with his working-class roots as he climbed the academic ladder. But now he cuts grass and blows away leaves to pay his 15-year-old daughter’s tuition at a private school for Adventists.

By doggedly calling for a May 1 boycott -- which he claims as his idea -- Diaz and his fellow organizers have divided immigrant activists, some of whom fear that a boycott could harm workers and students who walk out and could fuel negative public perceptions.

A walkout effort Diaz led several years ago in the Inland Empire came under similar attack after critics said that several hundred participants lost their jobs when they didn’t show up for work.

Calls for a May 1 boycott have caused friction between the March 25 Coalition and labor and immigrant rights groups who formed the “We Are America Coalition.” Some members of that group, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, are urging Latinos to go to work and school before attending an afternoon rally and march at MacArthur Park.

Even some who back Diaz privately bristle at his claim to have kindled the boycott, pointing to established Latino leaders who have toiled outside the spotlight.

“I think it’s a major political mistake to point to one person,” said Armando Navarro of the Riverside-based National Alliance for Human Rights, which backs the boycott. Though he praised Diaz for his energy and passion, he said that “the real credit needs to go to the people. We don’t have one leader.”

Still, most agree Diaz’s role was pivotal.

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“The boycott was a risky call,” said Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1877, which represents janitors and service workers and is part of the We Are America Coalition. “But Jesse and his group captured where the people are at, to know their anger and frustration was to that level where they’ll march.”

Diaz believes he has tapped into something crucially important to his goal of full amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“I have become a part of the American historical fabric,” Diaz said last week from his porch in a working-class Ontario neighborhood of aging Craftsman houses. “I have changed history.”

In his battles for immigrants, Diaz has made enemies, including Jim Gilchrist, who founded the Minuteman organization to encourage private citizens to help patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. In April 2005, Diaz led a group that protested in front of Gilchrist’s Aliso Viejo gated community, calling the anti-immigration activist “a white supremacist racist.”

Gilchrist calls Diaz “a rowdy troublemaker.”

But others applaud him. “He called for a boycott when a lot of people didn’t believe in it,” said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which backs the stoppage. “That takes courage.”

And persistence. In Ontario on Friday, Diaz paused to recruit another boycotter, asking a cashier whether she would be working today. The restaurant, she told him, would be closed.


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