Educator, Activist, California State Assemblyman 1970-1992
By Paul Chacon
Peter Chacon served in the California State Legislature from 1970 until his retirement in 1992 representing the urban core of San Diego. Upon his election, he became only the second Latino legislator elected to State of California public office in the past (100) years. Together with Alex Garcia, they formed the California Latino Legislative Caucus with a membership of just two.
Peter was born in Phoenix, Arizona on June 10, 1925 to Severita and Petronilo Chacon. His father had served as a commander in Poncho Villa’s revolutionary army and he passed on to his family the passion and determination to fight for what they believe in and to defend the rights of those who can’t defend themselves.
He was raised with three older sisters and three younger brothers as they grew up in relative poverty during the Great Depression. As a child, he used to gather cardboard boxes and loose wood for his mother to use for cooking in their wood burning stove. As a teenager, he shined shoes and parked cars in downtown Phoenix to help support his large family.
In 1943, at the age of (18), he enlisted in the US Air Force and served his country as a Ball Turret Gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress. While serving in the European theatre, he flew (35) successful missions over Germany. On one such flight, his plane was hit and forced to crash land on a small island off the Italian coast where they were subsequently rescued. After two years of wartime service, he was honorably discharged and returned home to a hero’s welcome.
As a result of the GI Bill, Peter was able to qualify and pay for a college education, becoming the first in his family to attend college. He enrolled in San Diego City College and ultimately San Diego State University where he earned his BA degree in education with a teaching credential in 1953 and an MA degree in school administration in 1960.
He is a lifelong member of Phi Delta Kappa, an honorary education fraternity. He accepted his first teaching assignment in Vista, CA. where he soon discovered Spanish speaking children were not taught to speak English but simply relegated to mentally retarded classes and shunned from the general school population.
The injustice in the manner these Spanish speaking children were treated led to many years of frustration with the educational system, until he decided in 1969 to run for the office of State Assembly representing the 79th District and to change the education system from the inside out.
Peter took a leave of absence from teaching in order to devote an entire year to campaign for the position. He cashed in his teachers retirement and sold his home, the only property he had ever owned and spent every nickel he had on that first campaign. By the grace of God and much hard work by an army of empowered volunteers throughout 1970, he won his first attempt at public office in a surprise upset over a popular incumbent.
At that time, the population of the 79th Assembly District was only (8%) Latino. Despite these odds, he not only won once, but he continued to campaign and run for reelection every two years thereafter. Throughout his entire (22) year career in public office, he never lost an election and retired undefeated.
Chacon is best known for his authorship of legislation creating the California Housing Finance Agency, the Rural Housing Development Program and the landmark Bilingual/Bicultural Education Program for the State’s more than 230,000 limited English speaking students.
He is often called the “Father of Bilingual Education” for his monumental and innovative work in the field while several states with large concentrations of limited English speaking students have passed their own Bilingual Education legislation patterned after his California model.
1968 was a tumultuous year for the minority community in San Diego and Peter saw the need for the Latino community to be organized as one voice so their voice was clearly heard. Along with two others, he founded the Chicano Federation and served as its first Chairman and Executive Director. One of the first accomplishments of the federation was the creation of Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan community.
Upon his retirement from politics in 1992, Peter and his wife Jean were living in Placerville, CA and devoted themselves to teaching English to Spanish speaking farm workers and Spanish to English speaking members of their church congregation. For many Spanish speaking Latinos, he translated legal documents and taught classes to become an American citizen.
Peter and Jean moved to Chula Vista, CA in 2004 and lived several years at Fredericka Manor. Together, they launched a Spanish language program for seniors in their new community. Jean Chacon passed in March, 2014 and Peter passed peacefully and graciously on December 14, 2014. Peter lived a life full of passion and faithfulness as he modeled a servant leadership heart for all of us to follow.
He is survived by his four sons, Chris, Paul, Ralph and Jeff and their wives, (10) grandchildren and (4) great grandchildren. Funeral services will be held on January 24th at the San Diego Church of Christ. Please contact Paul Chacon at (619) 318-3651 for more information.
Maria E. Garcia says
Paul, your dad had such an influene on the activist of the late 60´s early 70´s I am planning to share a few things about the changes he brought to the lives of Latinos. My memories of election night are as clear to me today as if they had happened last week. He did more than people know to help our community. He also knew, understood and supported bilingual ed. Many of today´s teachers have no idea that with Peter Chacon bilingual education in California may not have taken place. God Bless you and your family. On a funny note remember how he sent me to tell you how much he loved his 70th birthday party and wanted the same type for his 80th. You guys made his so happy and he was so proud.
Maria E. Garcia says
I meant to say without Pete Chacon ……
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
In 1970 I moved to California from the Midwest and my first child was enrolled in public school kindergarten where the disproportionate assignment of kids of color to segregated special education classes was glaringly obvious.
Shortly thereafter, Assemblyman Pete Chacon’s bilingual education bill fostered formation of truly bilingual elementary classrooms across California and creation of excellent progressive schools, such as Longfellow in San Diego Unified, devoted to delivering its entire curriculum in Spanish.
Years later I heard Assemblyman Chacon describe his own elementary school experience when Latino kids were physically punished for speaking Spanish on the playground, and, as an Anglo, I finally understood the shaping power of native language and the importance of electing an intelligent devoted advocate for the proper education of children to the State Legislature.
Pete Chacon was a towering figure whose life should be a model for local politicians who follow him to Sacramento. It was lovely to read about his later years of continuing service to others. RIP and thanks for everything.
Jim Bliesner says
Pete Chacon was a good person. I remember organizing in Golden Hill and City heights. I went to him and described what a CDC (Community Development Corp.) was. He wrote a piece of legislation to give state power and financing to CDC’s. It did not pass but the very act was so monumental at the time that I cannot ever forget it. He listened, he understood, he acted. No questions, no flim flam just action and knowledge. Every time I drive by that old house on G Street that was his office, I think of him and cannot remember any person so genuine and aware of what the struggle was and is.
I often wondered what became of him and like Fran am impressed at his humility and commitment to the simple elements of struggle in his later years. One by one.
I look around me now and wonder where have all the Pete Chacons gone. But maybe, just maybe there is still one out there struggling to really get it right. Presente Pete. My prayers are for a speedy admission in both languages.
bob dorn says
A local hero who didn’t swell up and look for glory.
Lori Saldaña says
Paul- condolences on the passing of your father. He was often mentioned with great affection and admiration during meetings of the Latino Caucus in the capitol as one of the pioneers “back in the day.” (It was sometimes joked that both caucus members could meet in the large phone booth to discuss their votes, that was located just outside of the Chamber floor.)
Your father will be remembered as a role model for many, and leader on many issues we now take for granted: equal educational opportunities for Mexican-Americans, bilingual teaching reform, and paving the way for future Latino leaders from San Diego county.
The sadness we feel over his death is surpassed by our appreciation of his many good deeds. Descansa en paz Assemblymember Chacon.
Paul Chacon says
Thank you all for your outpouring of love and support for my family. My father gave so much of his heart to so many without measure or end. During his last days, while in hospice care at Nazareth House, my father had all four of his sons around him and we were reading Psalms to him, praying with him and singing church songs that moved his heart. He asked me if I thought he’s been a good father and I could only answer with tears in my eyes that he had been an awesome father. In fact, he was so much more than that to me, he was my mentor, my role model and my hero. I’ve told my (23) year old son, Pete Chacon, that if he becomes half the man my father was, he will have made me very proud.
Please come join us at the memorial service which will be held at the San Diego Church of Christ meeting at Lewis Middle School at 5170 Greenbrier Avenue, SD, CA 92120. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (619) 318-3651 with questions or for more information.
Chris Chacon says
Thank you for your love. During the years of my dad’s service and in the decades following I continue to hear from this person or that one who has the same basic comment, that he was for the people. He was always other focused beginning with his immediate family, devoted to his mom like his siblings were and for a lifetime, devoted to his extended family, bringing nephews and nieces to their home in the Vista, then Coronado and then Placerville so they could enjoy a less citified experience. They took in a 13 year old girl for a year from the neighboring impoverished reservation and she went on to have a stable adult life. I love hearing about what he did as a teacher, a vice principal and as an Assemblyman. Any further stories you have are welcome. His life long focus was his devotion to God, to his wife and family, to those he could help and the deep humility to work on being better particularly whenever anyone told him he could do better at this or that. He also had a huge heart for the homeless. I drove him to the mariachi mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe (9 am every 2nd and 4th Sunday) which we both loved. Last year I drove through downtown, 16th Street. His response was more intense than I’d thought. In his semi Alzheimer’s state his response was profound. He was deeply shaken to see hundreds of tents and homeless people living on our sidewalks. Fortunately, with help from family and friends he regrouped in a day. However, he taught me by his response, that, really, that is the reaction we should have to this terrible situation. We welcome you to come to his service Saturday 1/24 11 am at Lewis Middle School. We believe he is in heaven with mom basking in the glory of God. Your comments have moved us. Thank you.
Donna Colella says
To the Chacon Family ,I’m sorry for your loss of your father…. Jeff & I were classmates at St.Pats in San Diego … Jeff there are a number of us St Pats class of 74 on a page called You know your from N Park.. My thoughts & prayers to the Chacon family
Erin Leigh Girdler says
Chris, (and Davelle and Hannah too), I am so sorry to learn of Pete’s passing but rejoice with you that he is finally home. He was so incredibly influential during my growing into a young adult aa I grew to care passionately about politics and I was so proud to be welcomed into the family by both he and Jean. I’m sorry I can’t make it out to San Diego for his service but know that I will be thinking of and praying for all of you.
Myrna Zambrano says
Does anyone remember who he beat in the first election? I read that it was a well-known incumbent, but no name was mentioned.
Maria E. Garcia says
Myra, it was Hom in the general election. Look up San Diego taxi cab scandal. I don’t remember who he won against in the primary.
Anna Daniels says
Tom Hom was the incumbent assemblyman, who took office in 1968.
isaiah hall says
One day Chris and I were together. He invited me to join an outing with his father. Peter Chacon was informed that Chris was filling a play-dad role for me, teaching me the basics of manhood that I missed out on growing up fatherless, as is rife in this generation. As we were parked behind Mcdonalds, before taking his first lick of his chocolate ice cream, we prayed. Just after we prayed . . . he slightly turns his head toward me in the backseat.
Peter Chacon : Call me dad.
I am honored to call Mr. Chacon Dad. His life-example blazes a trail for me as well as any other man aspiring to really live his life– to breath in the glorious heights of a well lived life.