There are historical living figures in Kern County that sadly, many don't know about or have forgotten. Ray Gonzales is one of them.
Gonzales recently had to step down as a member of the Bakersfield City School District board of trustees, a role he took on two years ago at the tender age of 76. That number is not a typo. So when I heard the news he was calling it quits, I knew it wasn't good news as this man has never shied away from hard work or controversy.
Born and bred in east Bakersfield in a humble house on Citrus Drive, his childhood story could be that of any other raised by immigrant parents from Mexico. Perhaps it was this humble beginning in life that motivated Gonzales to fight for social justice by studying for the priesthood at a seminary in Michigan.
"I always said I was going to be a father one way or the other," said Gonzales.
The ex-Marine left the seminary but the drive for equality for his fellow man did not diminish. In fact it only grew when he acquired his most potent weapon: a college education. And a Ph.D. at that.
Armed with brains, great communications skills and a drive to shake up the political establishment, Gonzales accomplished the unthinkable in 1972. He was elected to the state Assembly as the representative from the-then 28th District, becoming the first Latino from the San Joaquin Valley to win a seat.
He did it by first winning the Democratic primary and then beating the Republican establishment incumbent, Kent Stacey. Remember, this was 1972, when Hispanics comprised just a small percentage of the vote. Gonzales was able to garner a coalition of white, black and Hispanic activists who yearned for change.
In his book, "The Chicano Movement: perspectives from the 21st century," Bakersfield College professor Oliver Rosales wrote, "Gonzales' political approach was complex, ahead of its time, and symbolized the efforts of the liberal left in Kern County in the early 1970s."
It was a historic accomplishment because four other Hispanics were also elected to the state Assembly that year, and the five of them formed the Chicano Caucus, paving the way for others to follow. Republicans however, quickly retaliated in the next election in 1974. Gonzales lost to some guy named Bill Thomas.
Prior to his stint in the Assembly, Gonzales did something that literally changed the face of local television news. In 1967 he lead a community coalition, Kern Council for Civic Unity, and challenged the sale of KERO Channel 23. The station was among a group of others nationwide owned by Time-Life being sold to McGraw Hill.
KCCU objected to the sale before the Federal Communications Commission, claiming the stations had no minority representation on its newscasts. Anchors and reporters were all white men. Women, blacks and Hispanics were nowhere to be seen.
"The minorities they hired were either secretaries or janitorial people," said Gonzales.
After months of wrangling, McGraw Hill agreed to hire minorities and produce community coverage. To be fair, at the time neither KBAK nor KGET had any minorities on their staffs. Other media took notice of the challenge and change would sooner or later begin happening.
A direct beneficiary of this challenge was a young ex-soldier fresh out of broadcast school in Los Angeles. Working at a radio station in Lancaster at the time for $2 an hour, Louie Vega heard about a reporter opening at KERO, and gave it a shot. He was hired in 1971 and left in 1977. Kern County had its first brown face on local television news.
"I was the first to break that barrier, others soon followed," said Vega. But with people like Vega on the air, there was talk that some advertisers were threatening to take their business elsewhere, said Vega.
The experience served Vega well. He went on to law school, became an attorney and in 1990 he was appointed as a court commissioner by the then-Bakersfield Municipal Court judges. Today, Vega serves as a Kern County judge, having been appointed to the bench in 2008 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For all this, he thanks Ray Gonzales.
"He's a great man, great intellect and dedicated," said the judge. "He's made this community a better community."
Not only this community, but he also served his country well as part of the Diplmatic Corps for 10 years serving in numerous countries including Guatemala. It was here in the 1980s when he and his family were on a hit list issued by right-wing death squads. Later he served three years in Brussels where he rubbed elbows with royalty.
The only thing that has stopped this educator and civil rights pioneer is his health. Battling diabetes, his kidneys are failing and he's on hemodialysis. He will most likely be leaving town and moving to the coast to live with his daughter. I asked him how a kid from humble beginnings wound up doing so much.
"I always tell young people that if I, a mexicanito (little Mexican) out of east Bakersfield, can accomplish what I did, then they can do it, too."