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George Ortiz, Sonoma County civil rights leader and patron of Latino community, dies at 85

George Ortiz, the farmworker turned social worker widely regarded as the patron of Latino empowerment and community pride in Sonoma County, died Wednesday morning.

Ortiz, a relentless civic titan who co-founded both the vast California Human Development anti-poverty agency and the Latinos Unidos scholarship and cultural organization, was 85.

For more than 50 years, he was at the forefront of efforts to organize and bring equal opportunity and treatment to Mexican-Americans living in the North Bay and beyond.

His advocacy resulted in countless Latinos going to college, pursuing positions of influence, seeing improvement to their pay, professional prospects and access to health care, and openly celebrating a culture that had previously been marginalized.

“We’re much more literate,” Ortiz told The Press Democrat in 2001, speaking about the change he helped spur. “We’re much more enlightened. We’re much more ambitious.”

And yet his message always to members of Sonoma County’s deep-rooted and burgeoning Latino community was that they were capable and deserving of far more.

“As much as things have changed, they haven’t,” the son of Mexican immigrants told a Press Democrat reporter last September, as he dealt with advancing cancer. “We’re the grunts of this community. We’re not the CPAs or the attorneys.”

Improved lives

Still, many more Latinos are in such professional roles now, including local elected office.

Admirers credit Ortiz with inspiring and improving the lives not only of Latinos but of seniors and people with disabilities and others in need of advocacy, affordable housing, addiction treatment and job training.

“There are very few people who walk this Earth who have done as much as George Ortiz,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire of Healdsburg.

“He was so successful in life because he led with his heart,” said McGuire, whose projects with Ortiz date back to the creation of a day labor center when McGuire served on the Healdsburg City Council. “He was a force to be reckoned with, and he was the epitome of the American Dream.”

Upon learning of Ortiz’s death early Wednesday morning, longtime friend and comrade Alicia Sanchez was ever more grateful that she attended a celebration of his life and his mission last August in Windsor.

“George’s spirit moves us,” Zeke Guzman, current president of Latinos Unidos, told those present at the party at the Mary Agatha Furth Center.

When the ailing but beaming Ortiz addressed the grateful crowd, he said, “I never expected this honor in my life and it’s very important to me. It brings me a great deal of happiness and tranquility.”

Unable to resist the opportunity for activism, he declared, “We need to resist the White House people, we need to push back, we need to organize and we need to vote.”

Sanchez was 17 when she met Ortiz, and for a time she worked for him in Santa Rosa at what is now California Human Development. Sanchez, who today is 68 and a community organizer and leader of bilingual radio station KBBF, could never bring herself to call her mentor “George.”

“He was Señor Ortiz to me,” Sanchez said. She credits him with drawing Latinos together and rallying them to claim power, to embrace their culture and to be “proud of who we are.”

Ortiz was regarded as an ally, friend, brother and mentor by another well-known Sonoma County leader, Herman J. Hernandez, founder of the leadership group Los Cien.

“George had a golden heart,” Hernandez said. “I learned a lot from him.”

He said Ortiz was a master at forging collaborative relationships among people and organizations committed to helping Latinos lift up their lives.

Received many honors

Even as Ortiz was being weakened by the prostate cancer that had spread to other parts of his body, “He was there at Los Cien. He was on the phone, he was making comments,” Hernandez said. “The community was his passion.”

Ortiz received many honors for all that he did for farmworkers, Latino children aspiring to higher education and others. Among those tributes, California Human Development named a Larkfield residential complex for farmworkers the Ortiz Family Plaza.

In 1999, The Press Democrat named Ortiz one of the 50 people most responsible for shaping Sonoma County through the 20th century.

In 2017, the North Bay Business Journal bestowed on Ortiz its Latino Business Leadership Award.

In 2018, Sonoma State University conferred upon Ortiz the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.

That same year, the Mexican government presented him one of its highest honors, the Ohtli Award, for his efforts on behalf of Mexican nationals in the U.S.

Only months ago, Sen. McGuire, a Democrat, and Republican colleague Jim Nielsen of Tehama visited Ortiz and his family at their home in Santa Rosa and presented him a Gold Resolution from the Legislature.

Noting that as a young man Ortiz enlisted in the U.S. Army, McGuire said, “He served his country in so many ways.”

Worked the fields

George L. Ortiz was born in East Los Angeles in 1934, the youngest of six children of immigrants who worked as migrant farmworkers. As soon as he could, young Ortiz went to work in the fields, too.

“We used to go and pick in Utah,” Ortiz told The Press Democrat in 2004. “Potatoes in the fall. We did oranges and lemons in Riverside. Peaches in Cucamonga. Grapes in Ontario.”

He was paid a nickel for every 65-pound sack he produced.

“I weighed 75 pounds,” he said. “Those bags were heavy.”

A track scholarship allowed him to enroll at then-Fresno State College and become the first member of his family to attain higher education. He studied social services, and in the early 1960s moved north and became a social worker, first for Sonoma County and then for California Rural Legal Assistance. He focused on struggling farmworkers, going so far as to offer them citizenship and English classes.

Then he met Gerald Cox.

The Catholic monsignor had worked in social justice alongside Cesar Chavez when he came to Santa Rosa in 1962 after serving a stint at Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma Valley. As a new chancellor with the Santa Rosa Diocese, Cox set out to learn the needs of farmworkers.

Reading about Ortiz, he invited the social worker to lunch at the Sizzler near Coddingtown.

“That’s when and where the modern history of Latinos in the county begins,” wrote Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron in 2008.

Latinos Unidos began, Ortiz recounted, by offering a scholarship from “$500 Jerry said he got from a gambler ... we gave five $100 scholarships that first year.

“It wasn’t the money, it was a symbol of community support.”

As brothers in activism, Ortiz and Cox also rallied Latino workers to march with Chavez, by then-leader of the United Farm Workers.

Put people first

In 1967, Ortiz and Cox joined with immigrant and winery worker Aurelio Hurtado and attorney Louis Flores to found in Santa Rosa the nonprofit North Bay Human Development Corp.

Its mission was to assist farmworkers and others who struggled from poverty and injustice.

“We were angry, sick and tired of the way the system was treating us as citizens and human beings,” Ortiz would recall. “So we did something about it.”

The nonprofit, later renamed California Human Development Corp., started off with a $120,000 federal War on Poverty grant to provide job training in five Northern California counties.

Ortiz served as the group’s chief from 1967 until his retirement in 2004. It grew under Ortiz to become one of Sonoma County’s largest nonprofits, with about 400 employees, about 20,000 clients and reported revenues of $25 million at its peak.

Crisis hit with a bankruptcy declaration in 1994. Ortiz said at the time, “Over the course of 27 years, we’ve made a few mistakes, basic business decisions that didn’t work out.”

Today, the organization says it serves 25,000 people a year in 31 Northern California counties, with revenue of more than $17 million.

Though Ortiz retired as director 16 years ago, when he was 69, he remained a mentor and a source of inspiration at the agency.

“George has a legacy that’s really deep rooted,” said Anita Maldonado, CEO of California Human Development for nearly three years. “He was here from the very beginning. I call him my second boss.”

Maldonado said Ortiz would say proudly that he was always what he set out from Fresno State to become: a social worker.

“He told me, ‘Never forget about the people.’”

Ortiz is survived by his wife, Carol, his children, Robert and Diane, and two granddaughters.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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