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From the field to the office, El Concilio's Rodriguez comes full circle

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Posted: Thursday, August 11, 2005 10:00 pm

Jose Rodriguez spent many of his childhood days working alongside his parents in the fields of Marysville, reading books about people who worked to improve lives.

Now executive director of El Concilio-Council for the Spanish-Speaking, Rodriguez spends his days working to improve lives himself.

Since joining El Concilio in 1994, Rodriguez has pulled the organization from the depths of red ink. He helped it grow it from a small community-based center to a multi-county human services organization that provides a variety of social, financial and legal assistance.

Rodriguez, 39, says he believes his work at El Concilio "helps bring credibility to the Hispanic community so people will realize that (the Hispanic population is) just as interested in giving to the community than perhaps we're given credit for."

Others say it is more than that.

"With his leadership, the Concilio has basically been put at the forefront as a community service organization that provides a wide range of services," said Maria Elena Cerna, a trustee at San Joaquin Delta College who encountered El Concilio more than 30 years ago as a United Farm Workers organizer.

El Concilio was little more than a small office with three desks in 1971, Cerna said. Now it has grown to assist low-income families -- Spanish-speaking and not -- with daycare, translation, a food bank and a host of programs from driving-under-the-influence classes to health programs. The organization recently opened an office in Modesto, adding to those in Lodi, Stockton, Manteca and Tracy.

El Concilio is hoping to boost both its ties and assistance to the community Saturday at the Grape Festival Grounds with a benefit barbecue that will raise money for a food bank.

"(Rodriguez) is walking his talk in terms of giving back. … He's come full circle in doing that," Cerna said.

Born to seasonal farm workers Raul and Valentina Rodriguez in Marysville in 1967, Rodriguez learned English by second grade. Come summer, fields replaced the classroom as he and his three sisters worked with their parents.

Rodriguez' father had two reasons for that labor: "One, to encourage us to get an education, and the second reason because it was help," he said. "Financially, we were able to help generate some income for the family."

A bookmobile would come by the farm on Saturdays, giving Rodriguez a chance to read "To Kill a Mockingbird," biographies on Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon, as well as "Rain of Gold," his favorite. The latter, by Victor Villaseñor, dealt with a Hispanic family chasing the American dream.

Rodriguez' father pushed his son to chase the American dream, always encouraging him to become a lawyer or doctor.

But it was from TV's "Perry Mason" that he learned that attorneys were agents for social change.

"I thought that's a really good way to make a difference, so I wanted to be a lawyer," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez quit working on the farm with his parents until the summer of his sophomore year at University of the Pacific. After graduation, he went on to receive his law degree from Stockton-based Humphreys College, taking a job as a paralegal with El Concilio in 1994.

"I was impressed that here is this organization that helped the Spanish-speaking in Stockton," he said. "When I had an opportunity to work here, I jumped at the chance."

Two years later, at age 29, he applied for and received the director's position, but not without some lingering doubts from board members about his political leanings, much less his rather young age, he said.

"How could a Republican run a social service organization?" was the question some on the board asked, he said.

But he believed his conservative views gave him a focus on running a business, he said.

"When he came in, we were really in the red. And now we are a multi-million-dollar organization," said Arcelia Paskett, a former board member who is now the head of court interpreters at San Joaquin County Superior Court.

Rodriguez was behind the addition of El Concilio's domestic violence and DUI programs, as well as affiliation with CalWorks, a state-funded employment program.

The work of El Concilio was recognized last month by the National Council on La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group.

"I know my work consists of being an advocate for improving the quality of life for not just the Hispanic community but for all people," said Rodriguez, who lives in Stockton with his wife, Carrie, and his three children. "It's a very rewarding feeling. I really consider myself very blessed."

Contact reporter Jake Armstrong at jakea@lodinews.com.

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