By Ron Gonzalez
Filmmaker Abby Ginzberg said she wanted to make a documentary about Orange County native Cruz Reynoso, who became the first Latino justice on the California Supreme Court, because the generations that come after him should know his story.
“He’s a man with deep integrity, a commitment to values and social equity, and it runs deep,” she said. “He never expected to be a role model, but that is what timing presented to him, and he wore that mantle well.”
Her film, “Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice,” debuted last year and will be aired locally on KOCE from 9-10 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 16; on KLCS at 9 p.m. on Sept. 18; and on KVCR at 8 p.m. on Sept. 20.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Reynoso grew up in the Brea and La Habra areas, one of 11 children in a family of migrant farmworkers. He went on to attend Pomona College on a scholarship, and earned his law degree at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall.
The film, which cost about $400,000, highlights key events in his life, events that “transverse history,” Ginzberg said.
The film includes his service as the first Latino director of California Rural Legal Assistance and his battles with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan; his appointment as the first Latino to the state Supreme Court and later rejection by voters with then-Chief Justice Rose Bird and fellow Justice Joseph Grodin; and his service as vice-chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which probed voting rights abuses in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
We asked Ginzberg, a filmmaker for the past 25 years who is based in Berkeley, about the making of the award-winning film.
Q. How did you get involved?
A. I wanted to tell a story that would have resonance for all kinds of people. Cruz was someone who had a lifelong commitment to social justice, who had a difficult early life, who lived a life based on hard work and commitment to education and helped the community from which he came. Cruz was known to some people, but not to many. He seemed like a really good subject for me. I knew what I was looking for, and his life story and the historic battles he was involved in fit the story i wanted to tell. I like making films about unknown, unsung personal heroes of mine.
Q. What do you think is the most telling chapter?
A. For me, I feel like who Cruz is, as a human being, is cumulative. He’s always been the same person, as Dolores Huerta says at end of the film. There’s an essence to the man, a clear-sightedness and a deep humility. It comes through in each of the sections. But they each reveal a different part of him.
You see a feistiness when he’s fighting to defend the CRLA. In the attack on the court, it becomes more personal, and it threw him and his fellow Justice Joseph Grodin for a loop. They believed in the independence of the judiciary, and didn’t think that it was going to get that hot around their own feet.
And then again you see fire in the belly in the election of 2000. He was really upset by the systematic disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida. It got to him. Even though he was a government official taking testimony, you can feel his anger.
Q. How significant was his childhood in Orange County to the man he became?
A. To me, one of the really compelling aspects of Cruz’s story is the little detail, where he talks about his mom being upset with him for wanting to go on with his education – ‘My boys all read books instead of working.’ It’s pivotal point, where he decides he will go on with his education.
In general you think of parents supporting education, but in a family with 11 kids, how you get them fed is primary. That moment resonates for young Hispanic kids. Many of them today are encouraged by their parents to continue their education, but not all.
By pursuing his education and getting a law degree, he had the opportunity to help his family in bigger ways than if he had stayed a farm worker.
His message to young Latinos is, ‘You need to stay in school no matter what, because that’s what enabled me to have the opportunities and experiences that I had, and it will be the same for you.’
Q. What do you think Cruz Reynoso should be remembered for?
A. Here’s a man committed to the fight for justice and equality, and that’s been at the forefront of his life for over 50 years. What is admirable is that today at 80, he is still fighting against injustice and inequity. In addition, he has opened doors for countless other Latinos who have gone on to make a difference in the world while following in his footsteps.
I’d hope he’ll be remembered for a lifetime commitment to making the world a better place. In his efforts to improve things, he has sowed the seeds of justice all over.
Cruz Reynoso: Some key dates
May 2, 1931: Born in Brea
1949: Graduates Fullerton Union High School
1951: Associate degree, Fullerton College.
1953: Bachelor’s degree, Pomona College.
1953-1955: U.S. Army, Counter Intelligence Corps.
1958: Law degree, UC Berkeley.
1969-1972: Director, California Rural Legal Assistance.
1972-1976: Professor of law, University of New Mexico.
1976-1982: Associate justice, 3rd District Court of Appeal, Sacramento.
1982-1987: Associate justice, California Supreme Court. Leaves bench after losing 1986 retention vote with Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justice Joseph Grodin.
1991-2001: Professor of law, UCLA.
1994-2004: Vice-chairman, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
2000: Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom.
2001-2006: UC Davis law school, Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality. Becomes professor emeritus in 2007.
2011: Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, Chapman University.