By Maria E. Garcia
Jess Haro is well known in San Diego’s Latino community. The Chicano activist has been a City Councilman, Chairman of the Board of the Chicano Federation and has served on various boards in our community. How did the boy born in Stockton, California end up in San Diego?
Jess’s father immigrated to the United States in 1918. Jess’s mother became a widow from her first husband in Durango, Mexico and followed her daughter to the United States in 1923. It was a very long journey and took eight days by mule to reach Nogales where she then caught a train to El Monte, California. She went to work at the Hick’s Ranch and lived in the huge farm worker camp located in El Monte.
This is where she met Jess’s father. They married in Los Angeles and moved to Oxnard. Jess grew up hearing stories about the dirt floors that were in the labor camp and how his older siblings were subjected to the Oxnard segregated school system.
In 1935 the family moved to Stockton where Jess was born in 1936. Jess is part of a blended family and had five older brothers that served in World War II and Korea. He remembers having a very happy childhood. Unlike Oxnard the schools in Stockton were diverse. He does say the neighborhood was in transition.
Much like San Diego’s neighborhood of Logan Heights, the Stockton neighborhood was divided by freeway construction. At the end of the war Stockton had a large growth spurt and schools were over crowded. Development began to take place that changed what had been a predominantly residential neighborhood, also similar to what occurred in Logan Heights and greater San Diego.
Jess says his activism started in high school. He attended a NAACP meeting that left him with a real sense of right and wrong and equality for all. This belief in equality continues to motivate Jess to this day.
Jess remembers his teacher as being very positive. While in school he was active in sports, playing basketball. At Stockton College he played on the varsity team. The coach was from Stanford and urged Jess to apply to school there. Jess says that he never got that opportunity but he did attend junior college.
At the age of 17 he went into the Marine reserves. All of his family was involved in the military and it seemed like the normal thing to do. To Jess it was a way out of Stockton. He applied for officer’s training. His motivation was that he wanted to attend college and knew that by training for an officer’s commission his education would be paid for. He picked Sacramento State for the simple reason that it was near his home.
On weekends he would hitchhike home so his mom or sisters could wash his clothes. By 1956 many service men had returned to pursue their education through the GI Bill. Jess remembered that at that time you could attend Sacramento State for fifty dollars a semester.
Jess’s father cosigned for a loan and Jess soon became the proud owner of a car. His father was a farm worker and then a worker at the steel mill in Pittsburg, California. Mr. Haro was an active union member and thanks to the union, he retired with a pension and health benefits. Jess says this has had a lasting effect on his belief in unions and what they have accomplished.
Jess loved the Marines because it gave him the opportunity to travel. He spent three summers in Washington, DC. He had trained at Quantico and also worked at the American Embassy. He also says the Marines gave him discipline. To this day his heart is still a Marine and he has maintained some of the friendships from those days.
After his tour in the Marines he and a fellow Marine went on an adventure to South America. They drove from San Diego to Lima, Peru in an old jeep. At different points of their trip they traveled by boat, bus or plane. At one point, in order to continue their trip, they sold the jeep. Jess loved the travel by bus because it gave him the opportunity to talk to the locals. He stayed for quite a while in Lima. After his South American adventure, he held a job as a stockbroker in San Francisco.
In 1962, while attending a dance in Los Angeles, Jess and a friend spotted two girls. He told his buddy “You take the tall one and I’ll take the short one.” The “short one” turned out to be Jane and they have now been married for over fifty years. Jess says Jane’s family always accepted him although when she called her family to tell them she was marrying a Mexican the question did come up as to how dark he was. They married in a Catholic Church in Arkansas and moved to San Diego. Jess is very fond of Jane’s family and refers to them as good people.
In January of 1975 Jess was appointed to the City Council to fill a vacancy. In November of that same year he was elected to represent District 8. Jess had city-wide support. While on the City Council, Jess was instrumental in the firing of then Chief of Police Ray Hoobler. Hoobler resigned after it was discovered that he had lied about looking at confidential psychological counseling records of people employed by the Police Department. At that time Jess led the charge against Hoobler, who would be replaced by Bill Kolendar.
Jess had become a popular councilman and there was talk about considering him for a future run for Mayor. The Council and the Mayor at the time reflected a Republican San Diego.
Prior to Jess’s appointment there had been an investigation into some of his import business dealings. Jess was charged with a misdemeanor which should have meant that he could continue to serve on the Council. After he had won the District 8 election however, the judge sentenced Jess to ninety days in jail, resulting in him missing five Council meetings and thus being removed from the Council. Interestingly enough, while Jess was in the Federal prison two rather high-ranking Police officers visited him.
In the community there was a mixed reaction to the misdemeanor charges. The Late Emma Creal was quoted as saying, “If Jess Haro was a white millionaire, this would not have happened.” Her feeling reflected the belief of many community members that these charges were not only racially motivated, but politically motivated.
Jess says that he was a very active participant on the Council. In addition to leading the charge against Hoobler, Jess was part of the decision-making for the Holiday Bowl and downtown redevelopment. He says sometimes when you speak up you get in trouble.
Jess had been on the City Council about two months when rumors started flying that he was planning to run against Assemblyman Pete Chacon. There was a meeting that included Jess and Pete that was also attended by Mateo Camarillo, Richard de la Torre and Art Torres. Jess told Pete, “I have only been on the Council two months, why would I run against you?” Jess say he couldn’t figure it out.
Jess says when he left the Council, his biggest concern was how was he going to survive with his family and his psyche intact. “It is not easy when your ass is kicked to the door. I had to rehabilitate myself in my own way. I had to believe I still had self-worth. I knew how to get things done but my biggest concern was my family. My first instinct was to protect my kids and my wife.”
Jess describes that period of his life: “I had faced humiliation and rejection and it was not easy. I was at a low point in my life. I was called jail bird to my face. I lost pieces of property; it was really tough. I called everyone I knew for money. I was afraid no one would answer my phone calls. My friends were amazing; they helped me. An old Marine friend, Bob, told me his dad left him some property, and that he would get a loan on the property and I could pay him back. All of this helped me get on my feet. I tell my sons don’t be afraid to make mistakes; don’t be afraid of being embarrassed.”
Jess says that he finds it very weird that he seldom meets with politicians. “I want the new generation of politicians to be successful, but the reality is they don’t care what I think. I am old news. I also believe that the next generation should take the leadership and be allowed to learn and make their own mistakes. Some things have started to change. Think about this. The Speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Pro Temp are both Latinos.
Jess came to the Chicano Federation because the late Tina de Baca who had served on the Chicano Federation for many years had invited him. Her husband had been a Marine and that was part of their bonding. Jess says he wasn’t a Chicano when he came to the Federation, but that he evolved into one. “I was a Mexican American. People have to understand it was an evolution. When I arrived on the scene the Chicano movement was in full swing. I was aware of it but I wasn’t part of the movement. I embraced the concept but not the terminology. It was central to what I was doing and my belief in social justice, but it took me some time to get immersed in it.”
I asked Jess what he thought his biggest accomplishments were when he was at the Federation. “Stability. They wanted to de-fund the Federation when I first became Chairman. Irma [Castro Chicano Federation’s Director at the time] and I went to meet with [San Diego County Supervisor] Lucille Moore who was also a friend of mine.
One of the conditions of receiving county funding was that we move from the building in Chicano Park. I went to George Walker Smith and we purchased his property, a church located on the corner of 22nd and Market. We went on to challenge the City on district elections and won. Today we have district elections and District 8 is seen as a Chicano district thanks to that lawsuit. I think my highlight was the lawsuit.”
There is little doubt that without Jess Haro as Chicano Federation Board chairperson and Mike Aguirre as the lawyer for the case in favor of district elections, we would probably not know such names as Juan Vargas, Ben Hueso, or David Alvarez. That lawsuit changed the City Council forever. Jess believes the Federation raised its profile thanks to that lawsuit.
Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors remains an “Anglo only” club. Jess has testified before the Board of Supervisors: “These maps really don’t fool anybody. These are status quo maps drawn to guarantee the reelection of each and everyone of you on the dais.”
“People do not want to be reminded. You can read the value of their input if they are on a board by what changes they can make. The argument isn’t simply how many people you are going to hire at the Fire Department, but what role are they playing on that board.”
Jess was selected by Mexican American Business and Professionals (MABAP) as Advocate of the Year. Funding from housing projects allowed the Federation to have some autonomy. Jess’s biggest disappointment is that the Federation has stopped being an advocacy group. Some members had a problem with the name Chicano Federation and he would need to talk to people and tell them what they were doing. After a while the name was not important.
In 1984 the San Diego County Grand Jury recommended the elimination of bilingual education programs. Jess was there as President of the Chicano Federation speaking in support of bilingual education and calling the report “bigoted and racist.”
When I asked him what he is doing politically, he responds “I am not doing much. If someone needs a contribution to run, I give them a contribution. I have spent over 20 years as an advocate. I was at the Federation eleven years, fifteen years at HACER, and ten years on the California Utilities Diversity Council (CUDC). On the CUDC I was Chairman of the Governance Committee. I know I did a good job. We had a meeting with OBOC and I wrote the dissenting report.”
Jess kept telling them that it was a very bad idea to compare our company with nationwide companies. One of the commissioners, a woman, said “This is horrible, there are no women.” This person then called a woman who worked at SDG&E to testify. They grilled her. Afterwards Jess invited her for a beer. Not only did she refuse the beer, she added something like she didn’t want a thing from him and that he better be careful because he was biting the hand that was feeding him. His comment was rather simple. “I don’t work for you; they’re not feeding me.”
A few months later they met and he brought up the fact that governance committees should not be chaired by an employee. People do not want you to remind them that the process is to have a token African American, a token Latino and maybe a Native American, though he says Native American are really overlooked. He believes Anglo women fare much better; however, he says they still aren’t represented as much as they should be. He says it is not just a numbers game. It is much more involved than that–the point is does their participation make a difference?
Even though Jess was very modest about the changes he has made and the leadership he has taken, I spoke to Sam Duran, the former Director of the Urban Corps. Sam says Jess was always pushing Chicano organizations to make sure that Latinos got their fair share of funding. Sam remembers that many years ago, both Jess and Raul Aranjo from Pacific Bell worked as a team to help Chicano organizations. Raul was from New Mexico and had a lot of influence in Sacramento as well as DC. These two men made a difference in which organizations applied and were given the necessary funds to move forward.
Jess is very modest about his current advocacy and political work, but there are endless stories of what he has done for others and of those candidates that have asked for his advice when running for political office. Jess says he gets riled up when someone challenges his patriotism. “I don’t define patriotism as flag waving and some of the terminology you hear. To me it is in your heart. It’s how you act because of those feelings. This is something that people do not always understand. You can love this country and still see some of the things that are wrong with it.”
I will share this story knowing that neither Jess nor Jane have spoken about what they have done for others. A few years ago when I was substituting as a principal, Jane asked me to identify a family whose kids would enjoy attending a Christmas play. Arrangements were made to take the kids to the play. When returning to the family’s home, Jane asked the oldest sister if there was something they needed that would make a difference in their life. The girl responded that a washing machine would make a huge difference.
Through a church where their nephew was the pastor, arrangements were made to donate a washer and dryer to the family. When the appliances were delivered, neither the electrical outlets nor the drains were up to standard. Jess sent some of his employees to do the necessary upgrades at no cost to the family. The Haro’s help in the community and not making it public knowledge is not unusual.
Jess says Jane and he have had discussions on where he is to be buried. He says he thought he should be buried in Stockton because his parents and siblings are all buried there. He also argues that one of the first things he does when he visits Stockton is to visit the cemetery. He has been going there for the last fifty plus years. Jane insists she is not going with him and points out that their sons live here. I am betting Jane will win this discussion. I find it interesting that Stockton still calls Jess.
Today Jess is still working and enjoying his family. His sons Pete and Paul are doing very well, Paul as a real estate broker and Pete as a history instructor. He enjoys his grandchildren. Jane and he attend some political dinners and from time to time. He occasionally is involved in some political action.
Jess believes that it is time for new leadership and seems very comfortable with his life now. They only thing I can add is that Stockton’s loss was San Diego’s gain. Jess, you have had a tremendous impact on San Diego.
The complete series Latinos in San Diego here.
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