By Mike Kinney
1948 – the year the City of San Pablo was incorporated – is the same year Manuel Cruz arrived in the U.S. from Mexico as part of the Bracero program, which aimed to respond to farm labor shortages stemming from World War II.
Cruz’s arrival to the states marks an important moment in San Pablo’s history. Seventy-one years later, the farm laborer’s grandson, Arturo Maldonado Cruz, became the city’s first Latino mayor. Genoveva Calloway, who served 16 year on council, was San Pablo’s first Latina mayor.
Mayor Cruz hasn’t forgotten those roots – he recalls his grandfather with great pride and says he strives to live up to his work ethic. The mayor said his grandfather inspired his path to becoming a grassroots advocate for working families, immigrants and youth.
“My grandfather first arrived in the Imperial Valley of California to do irrigation in the agricultural fields, then later migrated to a small town in Northern California known as Woodland, where he harvested tomatoes and other produce,” he said.
Growers eventually offered Manuel Cruz a pathway to citizenship, allowing him to travel back and forth to his hometown pueblo of Techaluta Jalisco in Mexico to care for his family outside of harvest seasons. Eventually Manuel ventured to San Pablo for full-time work in the nursery greenhouses, where he settled with his family in 1968.
“He always taught me to work hard and take care of the ones you love,” Mayor Cruz said.
The mayor doesn’t just tell his grandfather’s story. He lives by it. The lifelong San Pablo resident and retired clerk for Contra Costa County was a staunch advocate with his union, American Federation of State County Municipal Employees Local 2700. At one point he sat on the union’s executive board.
Meanwhile, he was active in the faith community and in grassroots organizations such as Promocion Latina and Bay Area Peacekeepers. He’s used his skills as a hip hop artist to promote his Mexican heritage and to outreach to youth with faith-based messages of peace and violence prevention. Among his projects was the group, “Hiz Kidz- Blood Flow,” which can be viewed on YouTube here.
After years of advocacy, the mayor set his sights on political life.
“I saw the impact that I could have on improving the health and well-being of people and decided to take it a step higher by running for San Pablo City Council in 2006,” he said.
While bested by an incumbent that year, Mayor Cruz ran again in 2008 and won. The persistence paid off. Mayor Cruz looks back upon a list of enhancements in his city that a grandson of an immigrant helped realize. A new library, new Women’s Infants and Children office, new City Hall and fire station. Such projects created 600 jobs and boosted the local economy – and Mayor Cruz also points out the projects were on budget.
“Being a grandson of an immigrant goes to show you that it doesn’t matter where we come from, as long as we know where we are going,” Mayor Cruz said.
The road hasn’t been easy by any means. In September 2011, then Councilmember Cruz suffered a heart attack and stroke and resigned in 2012 while battling liver cancer. He wanted to focus on his health and family.
Again, channeling his grandfather’s spirit, Arturo Cruz “never gave up and never lost faith.”
In 2016, he was again elected to council. Last year, he was appointed as the city’s first Latino mayor.
Diego Garcia, a community advocate and business owner, has known Mayor Cruz for 25 years and calls him a “true community leader.”
“He really is for the community,” Bay Area Peacekeepers co-founder Gonzalo Rucobo added.
Mayor Cruz, of course, sees his path as a calling that not only honors community, but family.
“Everything my grandfather sacrificed wasn’t a wasted journey,” he said, “and helped pave the way for me to be a humble political leader who truly cares about the city I represent.”