Fred Ross Was Orange County's Loss—But César Chávez's Gain

The legendary community organizer influenced a generation of Latino civil-rights activists. But in OC, he was run out of town

"We suggest," the letter continued, "that it would be in [your] best interest . . . to refrain from any association" with Ross.

Shortly after, those same Latino leaders were called to a meeting at the Orange County District Attorney's Office. There, OC DA James Davis and Los Angeles Archbishop John Joseph Cantwell told them in no uncertain terms to run Ross out of town. Decades later, Tarango told Ross Jr. what happened during that meeting: "Hector told me that he told the DA and the bishop, 'This is what we're doing. We're parents of kids and want to end segregation. We're registering our fellow citizens, we're helping people to become citizens. What is un-American about that?'"

Bishop Cantwell responded that OC's Latinos just "didn't understand," and that Ross was "a real subversive character." Only Tarango sided with Ross; the other leaders quietly told their mentor his help was no longer needed. Undeterred, Ross moved to Boyle Heights the next year and started Community Services Organization (CSO), the group that would help elect Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council and eventually hire and train a young Chávez.

Ross with Chávez
Courtesy Fred Ross Jr.
Ross with Chávez

"He invited Tarango for the CSO chapter dinner shortly after it started," Ross Jr. says with a laugh now. "And Dad told him, 'Hector, I learned from my failure in OC.' And the lesson he learned, from then on, before he started any drive, he'd introduce himself to the bishop and DA. And he never failed after that."

The momentum that Ross had started in OC came to a halt—after Mendez, et al., Orange County wouldn't see any noticeable civil rights victories for Latinos until the tenant strikes of the 1980s. Los Angeles, on the other hand, changed radically with Ross' influence—and the story of the UFW, of course, is well-known.

Ross Jr. is trying to get his father inducted into the California Hall of Fame and awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. And though Orange County didn't want Fred Ross, it did serve as motivation for the rest of his life.

"One of Dad's favorite sayings was, 'The organizer is a social arsonist that goes around setting people on fire,'" Ross Jr. says. "'The organizer is the catalyst or the spark. The embers are there—you've just got to reach inside there and fight back against the injustices.'"

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