California Rural Legal Assistance celebrates 50 years of work

By Rebecca Campbell | Jan 25, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents low-income individuals and communities, recently turned 50 years old, according to a column on The Huffington Post.

Each year, according to the CRLA website, the nonprofit provides more than 43,000 low-income rural Californians with free legal assistance and several community education and outreach programs.

Founded in 1966, the first CRLA board of trustees included Jim Lorenz, Cruz Reynoso, Caesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong, a group of attorneys who had a mission of providing free legal services for the poor. Its first office opened on Aug. 10, 1966, in Madera.

During the founding of CRLA, Lorenz convinced President Lyndon Johnson’s staff in Washington, D.C., to open nine law offices around rural California to represent farm workers, which was part of Johnson’s “War of Poverty.” From 1965 to 1981, it was funded by the federal Community Services Agency.

Now with more than 20 offices from the Mexican border to Northern California, the CRLA seeks to ameliorate the more egregious conditions caused by rural poverty, meeting the legal needs of these communities.

According to the CRLA website, it has helped millions of low-income individuals, improving conditions for farm workers, single parents, school children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and entire communities.

In a report from The Desert Review, the CRLA has taken on large labor and civil cases, going after companies since it was founded. It has also been instrumental in changing many laws within the state. Jose Padilla, the executive director of the CRLA, is reported as saying that anyone who needs help — whether it relates to housing, discrimination or poverty — can utilize the services that the CRLA provides.

One such case that the CRLA has taken on and won includes the 1975 ‘El Cortito’ case involving the banning of the usage of the short hoe while weeding fields, which ultimately gave the workers permanent injuries from having to stoop over every day in the fields. Another case that the CRLA worked on was getting rid of the practice of giving Spanish-speaking students IQ tests in English and subsequently placing them in classes for the mentally challenged. It also helped to establish a bi-lingual, bi-cultural education program in Salinas.

The CRLA also represented a legally blind man and his legally disabled wife in their 70s who were taking care of their grandchildren, ages and 6, and they all were trying to pick grapes in the fields. According to the CRLA, the group sued for an injunction, subsequently winning the case after it went all the way to the state Supreme Court.

As The Californian reported the results produced by the nonprofit ruffled a few political feathers, which led to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan making attempts to shut down the CRLA’s services across the state.

Reynoso was eventually placed on the California Supreme Court, the first Hispanic to serve in that capacity, according to the University of New Mexico School of Law's website. Other CRLA lawyers worked with Jerry Brown when he became California's governor.

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