Fred Ross: America's Social Arsonist

Social Arsonist Fred Ross dedicated his life to building the political power of Latin Americans. Ross lit the spark that impassioned Cesar Chavez.

  • "A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire."—Fred Ross
    Photo by Fotolia/NOBU
  • Raised by conservative parents who hoped he would “stay with his own kind,” Fred Ross instead became one of the most influential community organizers in American history. His activism began alongside Dust Bowl migrants, where he managed the same labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
    Cover courtesy University of California Press

In America’s Social Arsonist (University of California Press, 2016), Gabriel Thompson documents the life of Fred Ross. Ross worked for the release of interned Japanese Americans, and after the war, he dedicated his life to building the political power of Latinos across California. Labor organizing in this country was forever changed when Ross knocked on the door of a young Cesar Chavez and encouraged him to become an organizer.

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On a warm June evening in 1952, two figures approached the front door of a small, wood-framed house in East San Jose. The first, Alicia Hernandez, was a young nurse who ran a well-baby clinic out of a nearby church. Accompanying Hernandez was a tall, square-jawed man named Fred Ross, whose erect bearing made him appear taller still. Ross was new to San Jose and learning his way around this neighborhood, which locals called Sal Si Puedes.

Sal si puedes is Spanish for “get out if you can.” And there was plenty to get away from. Many streets were without lights, sidewalks, or sewers. A nearby packinghouse dumped refuse into a creek, and when it rained the creek over- flowed, flooding the neighborhood with toxins. Afterward, stagnant cesspools glistened in the sun for weeks, littered with the occasional drowned and decomposing rat. Two years earlier, residents had gathered signatures asking the city to pave the east side’s dirt roads. Nothing had happened. Mexicans were meant to pick and pack the valley’s fruits and vegetables, and stay quiet. Sal Si Puedes was the embodiment of what author Michael Harrington would call, in a decade’s time, the other America: separate, unequal, invisible.

Hernandez was a familiar figure, but many must have looked at Ross with a sense of puzzlement. White and wiry, with movie-star looks and a poor grasp of Spanish, he seemed in need of directions back to the freeway. The forty-one-year-old had recently moved to the Bay Area from East Los Angeles, where he had helped form the Community Service Organization (CSO). In five years, the group with an innocent name had turned the city’s growing Mexican American population into a political force. They registered thousands of new voters, elected a Spanish speaker to the city council, and waged a high-profile campaign against police brutality that helped put cops behind bars. “New England–style Town Hall with a touch of old Mexico has mushroomed in the socially bypassed hills, hollows and flats of Los Angeles, and the back streets will never be the same,” reported the Los Angeles Daily News.

After the successful experiment in Los Angeles, Ross dreamed of expanding the CSO into a statewide organization. San Jose was his first stop. Soon after landing in the city, he had linked up with Hernandez, who was enthusiastic about the project and had agreed to introduce Ross to families she thought might want to get involved. Tonight, she had brought Ross to meet a young man named Cesar Chavez.

In time, Chavez would rise to international fame as the public face of the farm-worker struggle. He would march until his feet were blistered and fast until he was faint. Millions of people would rally to the cause, refusing to eat grapes. But on June 9, 1952, when Ross showed up at his door, Chavez was still an anonymous twenty-five-year-old struggling to support his growing family. The young man knew little about organizing and was suspicious when he heard that “this gringo,” as he later put it, wanted to talk to him.

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