Marco Cesar Lizarraga has dedicated his life to serving farm workers and improving their quality of life, something he understands very well from growing up in that environment.
As the executive director of the Sacramento-based La Cooperativa Campesina, a statewide association of agencies implementing and administering farm worker service programs, he has the ability to affect the lives of many.
The road to that position was spurred by getting an education and activism, though it began humbly.
Lizarraga grew up two blocks from the border in Pueblo Nuevo, the oldest barrio of Mexicali. His mother came to the border city with her mother, arriving from San Pancho, Sinaloa, a hamlet south of Mazatlán. She was just 16 when he was born and his father also came from the Mazatlán area.
In Pueblo Nuevo, Lizarraga lived one block from the New River. It was completely populated by people in extreme poverty, which was a shocking display of the miserable and tragic conditions of the poor. Lizarraga remembers the river was a flowing transport of raw sewage. The outhouses used the river instead of holes in the ground and the city’s sewage lines dumped additional solid waste and polluted substances, he said.
“This area was a playground for me as a child. It was infested by the poliovirus and no one had an idea. In fact, at 18 months of age, I became ill with polio and at that time they called it infantile paralysis. They did not know about the poliovirus, nor was there a vaccine, ” said Lizarraga, 73.
Lizarraga said he has vivid memories of tourists taking pictures of kids playing in the unpaved streets of the barrio.
”I remember being infuriated by those people taking pictures of us. We did not like it. It was when I started to think that someday I would do something about helping the poor. I realized that my commitment to dedicating my life to help the needy began here,” Lizarraga said.
A good memory he has grown up is coming to Calexico as a child to visit the Kress store where he used to go crazy just looking.
”It was a toy paradise. And it was ‘el otro lado’ (the other side), which was special to us. I think about the times we made holes under the fence when we were only seven years old to come by ourselves to Calexico. Boy, that got me good spankings,” Lizarraga remembered fondly.
Eventually, his dad, a musician, started playing trumpet for “Chacho” Meza’s band in Calexico, despite being undocumented. This led to Chacho helping his father, who they called “el Manotas (big hands),” get a green card in 1958. By 1959, his father arranged for his family get green cards as well.
Lizarraga said his parents always told him they wanted him to get an education in America.
”They really held education as extremely important to me. While in Mexicali, I attended the public school in the afternoon, but in the morning they sent me to a teacher that taught at her home in Pueblo Nuevo,” he said.
Once immigrated, Lizarraga’s family began going to Fowler, south of Fresno, to pick grapes and to Mendota for the cantaloupes.
There, he encountered his first cultural shock.
”First of all, as opposed to Calexico--the only U.S.A. town I had experienced--no one was allowed to speak Spanish in school. Not speaking English, I was given several tickets for speaking Spanish and had to pick up trash until a teacher took me to the principal,” Lizarraga recalled.
He added, “He then gave me a permit to be able to speak Spanish and they gave a friend of mine a permit to serve as a translator. In class, I was put in a back corner and I would mostly draw. It was quite an experience. ”
Eventually, his family stopped going to Fowler and Mendota and settled in Calexico.
”In the class, I made friends that I will never forget. And it was here, in Calexico, that I learned English by starting with ‘Spanglish.’ Eventually, I reached the high school where I really enjoyed playing the trumpet that my father taught me, ” Lizarraga said.
After high school, he attended the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and chose to major in electronic engineering.
Lizarraga lost his scholarship and had to find a job to be able to stay in school so he was sent to teach English to Camp Roberts, a military base. The students in the class were all farm workers. The image of his parents was prominent as he looked at them, he recalled.
“This shocked me into realizing that I should work to help our people. There began a radicalization process that was quickly accelerated and led to my transfer to the University of California, Santa Barbara,” Lizarraga recalled. “Interestingly enough, a Calexican, Fernando de Necochea, was instrumental in getting me accepted to this university.”
At Santa Barbara, the Plan de Santa Barbara had just been adopted the year before he started and he immediately joined MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán). The ”Plan de Santa Barbara” was a blueprint for the inception of Chicano studies programs in colleges and universities throughout the nation.
Lizarraga became deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam-War movement and was involved in many marches.
“Here I also joined the grape boycott of (United Farm Workers leader) Cesar Chavez and participated in getting people out to strike in Oxnard during the strawberry strike,” he added. “Again, here, I thought of my parents. As a side note, my grandmother was working picking grapes and walked out in the strike of Delano. While in high school I thought it was funny, but was proud of my grandmother.”
Lizarraga changed his major to economics. Upon completion, he was able to teach economics at Ventura College. From there he went to work for SER National, a nationwide organization providing employment and training programs primarily to Latinos.
“Throughout my employment tenure, the advocacy for farm workers never ceased. I had come from a farm worker family. My father continued to work in the fields of Imperial Valley until he passed,” he said.
An interesting part of Lizarraga’s life are the many times he tried to re-establish himself back home to Calexico, though the efforts never stuck. In one of those attempts, he and other partners started a planning and engineering consultant group.
“We managed to get a contract to run the Planning Department under contract with the city (Calexico). We were involved in the annexation of land and approval of the development of the Wal-Mart area and the (now closed) Sam’s Club. I have always been a strong advocate for economic development in our city of Calexico,” Lizarraga said.
Lizarraga started working for La Cooperativa Campesina in 1997.
One of his first efforts there was addressing a huge flood in the northern part of California that displaced thousands of farm workers. While farmers are always covered by insurance and assisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the farm workers are not, Lizarraga explained.
“We successfully obtained funds to provide farm workers with jobs working on restoration projects paid by La Cooperativa with funds from the Department of Labor,” he said.
He became executive director of the agency in 2009. Lizarraga said it has received funding from the state Employment Development Department to provide farm workers with training and placement in jobs such as welding, truck driving, weatherization, and solar-panel installation. In the drought disaster alone, La Cooperative was awarded $25 million to help the farm workers in the affected areas.
“Everything I have achieved is thanks to the sacrifices of my mother, my father and my grandmother. Their example and their desire to see me accomplish something positive in life was the electromotive force that drove me to where I am now,” Lizarraga said.
He added, “In my life, success has always meant the accomplishment of anything that is of benefit to those in need. That is the only meaning of life for me: to live to improve humanity. Calexico will always be my hometown, the town that gave me the foundations for being who I am.rn”