STOCKTON — Sunburned, muddy and aching, Jose Hernandez was flopped in the back seat of the family’s old Mercury with his brothers and sister when his father asked about their day in the fields, picking cucumbers.
“Tiring,” Hernandez, just a boy at the time, recalled answering. “My father said, ‘Good! I’m not going to force you to go to school or get good grades or go to college. But if you don’t, you know what your life is going to be like.’”
It was a hard lesson from a father who spent years toiling in the fields of the Central Valley, migrating back and forth from Michoacán, Mexico. Hernandez credits his parents and his life among farmworkers for giving him the drive to achieve his boyhood dream — rocketing into space as an astronaut.
The former NASA scientist now is part of an unusual political club: congressional candidates in California who are also the sons of Mexican farmworkers, hoping to represent the farming towns where their parents once picked strawberries, peppers or tomatoes.
Hernandez, a Democrat; Republican former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado; Coachella Valley physician and Democrat Raul Ruiz; and state Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego have cast their stories in the glowing American context of hope and opportunity for all. Their rise also affirms the growing political strength of Latinos in the California countryside, far from the major cities and urban neighborhoods that have been their traditional base of support.
“As the face of California changes, it’s not just changing in the city anymore,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who chaired the Democratic National Convention in August, said in an interview. “It’s changing in the rural areas and suburbs as well.”
New cracks in California’s political landscape have allowed that pent-up power to bubble to the surface, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes political races.
Voting districts were drawn for the first time by a panel of citizens instead of politicians or courts. The change was made partly to bind communities by geography and common interests — including farming communities with large Latino populations — rather than to protect longtime incumbents, Hoffenblum said.
“In the last decade or two, we were lucky to have one or two contested races for Congress. This year we have 10,” said Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant. “Latinos have taken advantage of it.”
Maldonado, 45, is a moderate from Santa Maria who, as a state senator in 2009, leveraged his budget vote to help establish California’s new “top-two” primary election system. The deal invoked the wrath of the right, but in the June primary he nevertheless won a spot on the November ballot in a Central Coast district.
“All I wanted to do was change the behavior of politicians. Democrats are throwing rocks at Republicans. Republicans are throwing rocks at Democrats,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado’s father came to the U.S. in the 1960s under the bracero program that admitted Mexican migrants to the United States to work in fields. The elder Maldonado built a family owned company, Agro-Jalisco, that now farms more than 2,000 acres and employs more than 300 people.
“When I was growing up, the American dream was available to my family. It was available to a lot of families. I don’t think that’s the case today,” Maldonado said. “If I was mowing lawns today, I think the Democrats would be there for me. But since I’m helping run a business, they attack me.”
Hernandez, 50, has harbored an interest in politics since his college days but didn’t plan to run for office “until the twilight of my career.” That changed when the San Joaquin Valley was flattened by the recession, he said.
“Unemployment was twice as bad as anywhere else, and no one was doing anything about it,” Hernandez said.
Republican consultant Luis Alvarado said Latino names on the ballot were no guarantee that they would dominate Latinos’ votes — even for candidates with personal success stories.
“Because they are good candidates, it makes the races competitive. It doesn’t mean they are the best candidates for the position,” said Alvarado, a former advisor to GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. “What it does guarantee is that Latinos will pay attention to the race.”
The tale of an immigrant family’s triumph, even generations in the making, is a staple of politics — giving candidates an up-by-their-bootstraps credibility that connects them with many Americans. For Mexican immigrants and their families, however, that acceptance can be elusive. Perceptions can be muddied by the volatile issue of illegal immigration, along with differences in language and skin tone, said L.A. City Councilman Tony Cardenas.
His father spent years in the fields of the Central Valley before moving his family to Pacoima in the 1960s to work in construction. He never let his children use discrimination, or any other indignities, as an excuse for not working hard.
“They shared their stories with us, but they didn’t complain,” said Cardenas, a Democrat running for Congress in the San Fernando Valley, “and they didn’t want to hear complaints.”
Benjamin Campos, a Republican accountant from Lakewood running in a district that stretches north from his hometown to South El Monte, said that will to overcome remained a central principle in his father’s life even decades after he left the avocado groves and landed a job at the Firestone tire plant in Paramount. Like Cardenas, Campos was born after his parents left the fields and settled in the city.
State Sen. Juan Vargas grew up on a chicken ranch near National City, crammed into a tiny house with nine brothers and sisters — so poor that, were it not for free eggs and fryers, there would have been hungry nights.
Still, the home was a step up from when he father was picking tomatoes as a bracero in Otay Mesa.
Vargas’ mother ruled the roost with love, discipline and a faithful Catholic’s belief that her children “had a duty to make the world a better place,” he said.
“Back East, there is that sort of pride of an immigrant making it from the bottom up. There’s a feeling of a shared experience,” said Vargas, whose wife came from a family of Italian stonemasons who settled in New York. “You don’t see that out here … but, oftentimes, our stories are just as heroic.”
Raul Ruiz’s mother, who arrived in the Coachella Valley in the late 1960s to pick peppers under the hot desert sun, pushed her children to study and work hard, saying those traits, not the family’s modest beginnings, would shape their lives.
“There are people who think that because you work in the fields, or because you are poor, or because you are from Mexico, that you are less,” Blanca Ruiz said. “You learn that who you are is more important than what you own.”
Raul Ruiz, 40, now an emergency room doctor at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said he never forgot the pride and self-reliance of the workers in the fields and the packinghouses.
While a student at Coachella Valley High School in 1990, he raised about $2,000 walking door-to-door, asking shopkeepers and residents to help pay his college tuition.
He promised to become a doctor and to return to the valley to care for those in need.
In 2007, after graduating from Harvard Medical School, he did. While working at community clinics, he saw immigrant towns in the southern Coachella Valley overwhelmed by despair.
“My father told me never to complain,” he said, “if you’re not going to be part of the solution.”