Fight Song

Civil rights lawyer Jose Padilla champions the people of rural California.

March 2022

Reading time min

Jose Padilla playing guitar in a room filled with Mexican art

Photography by Timothy Archibald

Jose Padilla’s 40-plus years of “lawyering against power” began with a win before a skeptical judge—his father. After graduating from law school at UC Berkeley in 1978, Padilla, ’74, was poised to fulfill a promise he had made to the community leader who wrote him a recommendation for Stanford: He was coming home to the Imperial Valley, an expanse of sun-scorched scrubland snugged between San Diego and the Arizona border and transformed into prime farm country by the waters of the All-American Canal and the sweat of workers like Padilla’s grandparents.

But first Padilla wanted his father’s blessing—and therein lay the rub. Padilla was joining California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal aid organization founded on a vision of providing the poor with the “same economic, political and social bargaining power” that private law firms offered the rich. The goal wasn’t simply to obtain justice in individual cases but to make a larger impact. A few years earlier, CRLA had championed complaints from workers in Salinas about the short-handled hoe—el cortito—a weeding tool that forced them to spend hours in a stooped position, eventually ruining their backs. In 1975, California banned the tool.

Portrait of Joe PadillaJoe Padilla. (Photo: Courtesy Jose Padilla)

‘Well, after that lecture, Dad said, “Kneel down, I’ll give you my blessing.” ’

But bold tactics, outsider lawyers and a willingness for confrontation can ruffle feathers, not least in rural communities. Padilla’s father, also named Jose and known as Joe, was a former farmworker who’d earned his U.S. citizenship serving in World War II and who supported his family as a unionized truck driver. To him, CRLA attorneys’ reputation for taking on local employers made them rabble-rousers. Like most of his classmates, the elder Padilla had left school to work after the eighth grade, and he wanted to make sure his son didn’t squander his education. His response when Padilla told him his plans: “You’re going to work for those radicals?”

His son didn’t flinch. “Dad, you told me and Grandma told me that I shouldn’t forget how to serve our community, right?” Padilla recalls responding. “They’re serving people like you were, they’re serving people like Grandpa was. You always told me it wasn’t about the money, it was about the value in life, and it was about giving service back. You taught me that. I learned it. And I am going to do it, so I need your blessing.”

“Well, after that lecture,” Padilla laughs, “Dad said, ‘Kneel down, I’ll give you my blessing. May God bless you and your work.’ ”

On the evidence, it’s tempting to say something has smiled on Padilla’s career intentions; at the least, Padilla has had no regrets about standing up to his father that day. He long ago moved away from Imperial County; he has never left CRLA. Six years after joining the organization, he relocated to San Francisco as its executive director. Nearly four decades later, he remains in the post, leading an organization of 66 attorneys, 46 community workers and 17 field offices spread across California’s agricultural heartland, from El Centro in the south to Marysville in the north.

He is a hero in the legal aid world, renowned both for intransigence under attack—CRLA has no shortage of detractors—and for flexibility in response to clients’ changing needs. Under Padilla, CRLA advocacy has expanded to include LGBTQ+ issues, sexual harassment cases, foreclosure prevention, and outreach to the growing number of farmworkers who speak neither English nor Spanish. But at its core, CRLA’s focus, like Padilla’s, remains the same: fighting for the rights of the rural poor, many of whom are immigrant farmworkers. “I can’t think of many people who have brought justice to more people who feed Americans every day than Jose,” says Don Saunders, senior policy counsel at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. “He really stood up for some of the most disadvantaged communities in the United States.”

A movement against sexual assault

Most people have never heard of CRLA or its aims. It’s perhaps the consequence of America’s rural-urban divide, a veil that obscures farming communities like Arvin and Madera, to name two locations where CRLA has offices. Citified Americans have become increasingly concerned with how their food is grown, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to worrying about who grows it.

Even the government agency whose very mission is workplace equality has traditionally overlooked farmworkers. When William Tamayo took over as regional attorney in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s San Francisco office in 1995, the federal agency’s focus was on urban cases involving anti-Black or gender discrimination. Agriculture—and its largely Latino workforce—was low priority.

But Tamayo—whose Filipino father had worked in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii—reached out to a wider roster of stakeholders, including Padilla. In an industry where physical duress is expected, Tamayo thought he’d be prodded to pursue claims of age and disability discrimination. Instead, Padilla pressed him to act against sexual assault of female farmworkers.

As a former immigration lawyer who’d seen many domestic violence cases, Tamayo was familiar with the vulnerability of women on society’s margins. But he was shocked by what Padilla described—a world in which “hundreds, if not thousands” of poor, immigrant women faced the choice to submit to sex or lose their livelihoods. When he began talking with the farmworkers themselves, he would learn that they used terms like “green motel” and “field of panties” to refer to the locations where they’d been raped.

Tamayo agreed to train CRLA workers on sexual harassment law in August 1996. A month later, a woman walked into CRLA’s Salinas office looking for help receiving unpaid wages from a job. The community outreach worker, sensing more to her story, kept asking questions, and soon his suspicions were confirmed.

Padilla sitting on a bed next to a wall full of crosses

The woman had been fired—as had her boyfriend—after objecting to harassment, including lewd remarks and unwelcome touching. And there was more: She’d been forced to have sex with the hiring supervisor to get a job in two previous picking seasons.

CRLA alerted Tamayo, who threw EEOC resources into an investigation. The result, in February 1999, was an $1.86 million settlement with the woman’s employer, an unprecedented outcome that Tamayo says inspired more farmworkers to come forward and more legal aid organizations across the country to pursue sexual harassment cases. He credits Padilla and CRLA, his “eyes and ears,” for starting the movement.

‘Never forget your root’

When Padilla told his mother about CRLA’s groundbreaking work on rape cases, she told him that sexual assault had blighted her generation, too, their family included. “Why don’t your three cousins all look alike?” she said.

“That made me look back,” he says. “I am here for a reason. I am here because I come from that base and I’m able to push representation that was not there before I became director.”

Padilla grew up on the east side of Brawley, a small town in central Imperial County. His grandparents on both sides immigrated there from Mexico in the 1920s. On the west side of the tracks, he says, were mostly white growers and professionals; on the east side were mostly Latino farmworkers and a few families like his own, who’d risen a notch above in economic comfort.

The public elementary schools were as segregated as the neighborhoods, but when Padilla was in third grade, the local priest told his parents that the young altar boy was smart and would benefit from the more rigorous Catholic school. And so Padilla’s family began driving him and his three younger siblings to Sacred Heart in an old AMC Rambler that contrasted with the late-model cars making the same drop-offs. Few other kids saved their paper lunch bags for reuse.

It was a short drive but a sufficient distance for Padilla to go from being the “smart” kid at a mostly Latino school to a struggling one at a mostly white institution. But by sixth grade, he was again the top student. He returned to the public system for high school, where he excelled at baseball, edited the yearbook, served as class president, and benefited from faculty who fed him books, like Eldridge Cleaver’s civil rights memoir, Soul on Ice, and who stoked his potential. When a recruiter from a Northern California university visited campus his junior year, a counselor made sure Padilla was in the audience. Outside of sports scores, it was the first time he’d heard of Stanford.

When a recruiter from a Northern California university visited campus, a counselor made sure Padilla was in the audience. Outside of sports scores, it was the first time he’d heard of Stanford.

But Padilla wasn’t living out a charmed narrative. His senior year, his school would select one student to visit Costa Rica on foreign exchange. With his stellar grades and Spanish fluency, Padilla felt like a shoo-in. He wasn’t. A vice-principal explained the Costa Rican hosts were expecting someone “American.” He was too Mexican.

At a backyard party to celebrate his high school graduation, his grandmother took him aside. “I don’t care how important you become, or how many important people you will know, or how many important friends you make,” she told him in Spanish. “Never forget. You always carry a cactus on your forehead.”

He was, she meant, of common stock, marked by the abundant plant of the desert. People would always see it in him. He should too. “Never forget your root,” she said.

Farm communities

As a freshman at Stanford, Padilla began growing the mustache he still carries—a proud signifier, he says, of his Chicano identity. He was editor of a campus newspaper called Chicanismo; he started a literary magazine called Miquitzli; and he was a resident assistant in the first years of Casa Zapata, the Chicano-Latino theme house. “He was a rather amazing RA,” says Arturo Pacheco, the dorm’s inaugural resident fellow, “maybe one of the best I ever saw there in the next 14 years.” Padilla’s initial ambition at Stanford—to become a doctor—was challenged by struggles in math and science classes he realized stemmed from his comparative lack of preparation. At Zapata, he helped other students form study groups to reduce similar frustrations and organized seminars to help students understand their roots.

The disparities in education Padilla saw growing up and at Stanford shaped a lifelong interest in schooling. He contemplated pursuing a PhD in education policy before choosing law, influenced by summer experiences working with the United Farm Workers.

At CRLA, he has been able to blend both interests. When he started as a staff attorney, the organization was just coming off a win in another of its iconic cases from the early ’70s, a class-action suit that prevented schools from administering IQ tests only in English, which had the effect of funneling Spanish-speaking students into special ed classes. Padilla’s early focus at CRLA included establishing education rights for families of migrant workers and fighting a rollback of desegregation efforts. Today, education—along with housing and labor rights—remains central to CRLA’s mission.

A dozen years ago, Kern High School District in Southern California released head-turning disciplinary data showing more expulsions than any district in the state, even those with far larger populations. Moreover, Black students were expelled at a rate almost 600 percent higher than that of white students. Latino students were expelled at a rate 350 percent higher.

When the disparities in Kern County persisted, CRLA jumped in, filing suit in 2014 along with other groups, including Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 2017, the district settled, agreeing to, among other things, pay $670,000 in damages, work with experts to overhaul its discipline training, and prohibit expulsion for “willful defiance,” a vague term for wrongdoing that critics say throws open the door for racial bias to influence who gets what kind of punishment. CRLA’s director of litigation, Cynthia Rice, says it was hallmark Padilla: Take a strong stance, bring in collaborators who trust his leadership, and back it up with solid and innovative legal arguments.

Of course, CRLA’s victories look less illustrious to those on the other side. Kern High School District denied wrongdoing and said it had already begun addressing the high numbers before the lawsuit was filed. “Settling the case simply means that KHSD no longer wishes to be compelled to spend any more taxpayer money—meant for education and students—on attorneys’ fees and costs associated with defending against this litigation,” it wrote on its website. CRLA was, in so many words, a nuisance litigator.

Portrait of a young PadillaPhoto: Courtesy Jose Padilla


Joe Del Bosque, who grows melons, asparagus and almonds in Firebaugh, Calif., respects CRLA’s goals. Both he and his wife were farmworkers before becoming growers, and he retains a deep concern for his workers. But he says many farmers recoil at some CRLA practices, like sending out observation crews who scan fields with binoculars, documenting infractions like not having a nearby toilet or shade in hot weather. Del Bosque is a former chairman of Ag Safe, an industry group that educates farmers on how to better meet such workplace regulations. They use the carrot to entice change, he says. CRLA, in many farmers’ minds, uses only a stick.

Controversy and confidence

CRLA has been controversial since its inception. The organization was birthed in 1966, thanks to a $1.27 million grant from the newly established Office of Economic Opportunity, a creation of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Before the grant was even approved, the California State Bar was in opposition, calling the proposal “militant advocacy.”

By 1971, CRLA had garnered the ire of the state’s top politician. Outraged that the organization had thwarted planned cuts to Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan tried to block federal funding for what he called a “bunch of ambulance chasers doing their own thing at the expense of the rural poor.” The attack backfired when a report justifying Reagan’s position proved rife with inaccuracies.

But over the decades, opponents of CRLA, and legal aid in general, have been successful at limiting what federally funded legal aid organizations can do. They may not, for example, work on cases involving abortion, initiate class-action suits (as had been possible for CRLA’s IQ case), or, in most instances, represent undocumented people. Padilla estimates 60 percent of California’s some 830,000 farmworkers are here without proper documentation.

‘We all knew about it because we thought it was one of the biggest threats not only to CRLA but to legal aid in general. He took up that fight.’

Between 2000 and 2005, the inspector general of the Legal Services Corporation—which distributes funds to 132 federally supported legal aid programs across the country—opened three separate investigations into CRLA after complaints from congressional representatives, Republican and Democrat, with connections to the agricultural industry. The last investigation, initiated by former dairy farmer and outgoing congressional representative Devin Nunes, resulted in a preliminary finding of “substantial evidence that CRLA has violated federal law” by soliciting clients, working a fee-generating case, requesting attorney fees, and associating CRLA with political activities.

The investigation then bogged down in a six-year subpoena battle in which CRLA refused to give the inspector general tens of thousands of client names. “CRLA is a rogue organization with a long history of serious legal violations,” Nunes said as the date for appellate oral argument neared. “In light of these transgressions and its long-standing refusal to cooperate with the inspector general, its federal funding should be terminated.”

The D.C. Circuit ruled that CRLA had to turn over the names, but the broader investigation never reached a conclusion. To critics, CRLA had simply stonewalled the investigation until it fell apart. But in the legal aid world, Padilla’s reputation only grew as someone willing to go toe to toe with opponents to protect the privacy of vulnerable clients. “We all knew about it because we thought it was one of the biggest threats not only to CRLA but to legal aid in general,” says Sylvia Argueta, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “He took up that fight.”

Padilla sitting at a desk working on a computer

That is as anyone who knows Padilla would expect. A garrulous presence in private life—his wife, lawyer Deborah Escobedo, chides him for running at the mouth—Padilla can be the life of the party, singing Mexican rancheras and boleros on his guitar with a charisma that translates to his advocacy. “His ability to tell a story to any audience, even hostile audiences, makes it impossible to come back and say, ‘You’re wrong, you’re a bad man, you’re insincere,’ ” says Jack Londen, a partner at the law firm Morrison & Foerster, who represented CRLA lawyers in the subpoena investigation. “I have never seen an audience that didn’t fall in love with Jose.”

Estella Cisneros, ’07, legal director of CRLA’s agriculture worker program, was motivated to join the organization after seeing Padilla speak while she was a student at Yale Law School. “I remember just how inspiring he was and how genuine he seemed, and how it really made me excited about working for legal aid and being a people’s attorney.”

And yet Padilla is also a battler. His heroes include the late Cruz Reynoso, once the head of CRLA, later the first Latino member of the California Supreme Court. In 2012, Padilla wrote an essay crediting Reynoso and CRLA’s other founders for establishing a culture of “lawyering against power” founded on three principles: representing the most vulnerable; working for systemic change; and expecting to pay the price for daring to do so. For Padilla, Nunes’s outrage was the inevitable result of CRLA’s successes, including winning claims of millions of dollars in unpaid wages and benefits from the dairy industry. “When you engage in systemic advocacy and confront political power, there is a political price to be paid, and you must be prepared for the political consequences that follow,” Padilla wrote. A “social justice advocate must never be afraid to lawyer to power and must always be able to defend the work.”

Marty Glick, who was CRLA executive director for two years in the ’70s, and who was central to the short-handled hoe and IQ cases, is amazed by Padilla’s stamina. The job requires dealing with politics, the press, fundraising, and the internal frictions inherent in any large, decentralized organization, all in addition to advocating on behalf of clients. And yet Padilla has thrived for decades, Glick says, a tenure marked by a sharp legal mind with the strategic sense of when to hold back and when to go all in.

‘How anybody could do it for really any length of time, let alone the amount of time Jose has done it, is truly remarkable.’

“I was director of [the Employment Development Department] under [Gov.] Jerry Brown for four years; I was managing partner of my law firm; I now run a small entertainment company,” Glick says. “It was easily the most difficult leadership job of any of those. How anybody could do it for really any length of time, let alone the amount of time Jose has done it, is truly remarkable.”

If Padilla has an advantage, perhaps it’s that he was born into the world he fights for. “He is a guy who still wakes up in the morning and thinks about serving the poor,” says longtime friend Sergio Garcia, ’83. As a law student in the mid-’80s, Garcia worked on a case for Padilla in which farmworkers in Salinas had been forced to dig caves in the hillsides in which to live. Nearly 40 years later, the dankness of the caves has stayed with him. “It was a rude awakening to me,” he says. “This is what CRLA is about.”

Soon after his return to Imperial Valley in 1978, Padilla crossed paths with the community leader to whom he’d made his teenage promise to come back home. A decade prior, the man—the leader of an organization called Casa de la Amistad—had balked at writing a Stanford recommendation for Padilla. Why, he asked, should he help another kid leave town and never come back? Padilla had insisted he would be different. Indeed, the deciding factor in his joining CRLA rather than the United Farm Workers was that CRLA had a job in Imperial Valley.

But when Padilla told the man this, the man had no idea what he was referring to. “‘I used to write a lot of letters,’” he told Padilla, who laughs at the memory of the earnest kid whose word was a bond only he knew about. “Here I had made all my life decisions around this promise to this organizer,” Padilla says, “and he never even remembered.”

It’s a funny story, but maybe not the whole story. Much more than that moment brought Padilla back to rural California. Much more than that keeps him fighting for it.

Sam Scott is the senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.