Joe Cruz, a second-generation Mexican immigrant, first learned to fight in the streets. He would later use that skill set to fight discrimination in trade unions and as vice chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
By Jamie Hudalla | News reporter
Joe Cruz teetered on the red steel beam, 6 inches wide and 2.5 stories off the ground. He took another step, balancing the bricks and mud boards in his arms. Suddenly, the scaffolding shuddered and the sky blurred into the building.
His mind spun 90 miles an hour and his body dropped faster. Cruz flung out his arms, searching for something, anything to slow down. He grabbed ahold of the yellow cross-braces and they tore through his uniform. Once they shredded the material, they tore through his flesh.
His back hit the ground, a plank landing on top of him. Later, Cruz would thank God for the plank because it saved him from the raining cement blocks.
Cruz couldn’t move. A few seconds later someone found him.
“What happened?” the bricklayer asked.
“What do you think happened?” Cruz snapped.
Cruz spent three months in physical therapy, during which he reflected. I can’t leave my kids orphaned. It was time to leave construction. Having his ankles run over by two welding machines hadn’t convinced him, but having a building collapse on him did. One day the wounds would be forgotten scars – marks he never let define him. Cruz didn’t lose sleep over any of it. Not even bullet holes and backfiring unions.
From fields to factories
Jose Bascilio Cruz de Jimenez was battle-born. In his teens, he fought the white kids looking for trouble in his neighborhood. In his 20s, he fought union management that didn’t hire him because of his last name. But mostly, he fought for his family.
Born in 1937 to two Guadalajaran immigrants, Cruz grew up in West St. Paul in a community of Latinos and Jews. He worked in the fields at 5 years old, carrying trays of food and water to his family as they picked sugarbeets and corn. When Cruz was 12, they went to North Dakota for the summer, living in shacks and sleeping on hay.
“You ate what you picked,” Cruz said. “We picked potatoes, so we had potatoes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
One day, Cruz and his brothers grew sick of the fixed diet. In search of a good burger, they meandered into Grafton, a town 45 minutes north of Grand Forks along the Red River. They shuffled into the first restaurant they came across and plopped into a booth. The waitress gave them an icy look, but retrieved their waters.
Time slugged past as they waited for her to return, but she flitted past their table every time.
“Hey, we’d like to order,” Cruz finally said.
“We don’t serve Mexicans here,” the waitress spat.
“We don’t eat Mexicans. We want a couple hamburgers,” Cruz’s older brother said.
The waitress threatened to call police. The boys ended up buying lunch meat and eating sandwiches on the curb that afternoon.
A year passed before Cruz had to cross the State Street Bridge to attend Lafayette Grade School in sixth grade, where he was again met with discrimination. Lafayette was in a place they called The Hills, where the middle- to upper-class lived.
One night, the school hosted a dance. Cruz ran home to tell his mom.
“What do you want to go to that for?” she asked.
“I get to meet other kids,” Cruz said.
Cruz tugged on his best black slacks and shined his leather shoes. He and his friends left at 5:30 p.m. so they could arrive early, but when they reached the bridge, a police officer confronted them.
“Where are you going?” the officer asked.
“There’s a get-together at school tonight,” Cruz answered.
“School’s over,” the officer said.
Cruz tried to explain once more, but the officer shook his head.
“You go to school here in the morning and then you don’t belong here after that. Go home.”
Cruz’s elation deflated until all he felt was disgust. He got home and complained to his parents.
“You have no business going up there after school hours, because that’s a different kind of neighborhood,” his father told him. “You’re not here, where you’re protected by your own.”
Cruz’s attitude soured. He grew up with a short fuse, taking his aggression out by playing on the offensive line in high school football. Coaches from other teams yelled at their players, “Go get that wetback!”
Wetback? Cruz thought. I was born here. What are you talking about? Cruz only tackled harder. He learned to block out the noise that was racism, because that’s all it was: white noise.
In 1956, Cruz graduated from Humboldt High School, the first in his family to earn a diploma. From there he killed hogs at packing plants and stole cashews off conveyor belts at the peanut factory. When he was laid off in the winters, Cruz would put on his suit and peddle his resume around town like a door-to-door salesman. Finally, Cruz fell off that scaffolding and came to a conclusion.
“I got to the point where I said, ‘I need to make a change in my life. This isn’t working well for me,’ ” Cruz recalled.
The desire for more
He applied for a job at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Sanitary District. For three years, Cruz swept floors and cleaned human waste off of pumps.
He didn’t complain – the job hadn’t been easy to get. When Cruz first applied for a plumber’s apprenticeship, he’d taken a test that placed him 14th on a list of 30 applicants. They glanced over his name and plucked people ranked in the 20s. When Cruz demanded answers, they told him others were better qualified.
“I can’t believe it,” Joe told his friend, Eddie de Gallo.
Gallo, a Mexican with a lighter complexion, had gotten the plumbing job.
“Jose, I’m going to tell you something, but don’t repeat this,” Gallo said. “They don’t know I’m Mexican. They think I’m Italian – they call me Galo.”
According to Cruz, the union didn’t want “wetbacks” in the city — they were supposed to work in the fields. But Cruz didn’t settle for sugarbeets and corn. The chief administrator of the sanitary district, who Cruz referred to as Godfather, took note of Cruz’s determination. He gave Cruz a good evaluation and Cruz gradually moved on to higher positions. In the early ‘60s, employees nominated him steward of the Operating Engineers Local 35 Union. Cruz negotiated contracts when the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Sanitary District transformed into the Metropolitan Waste Control Commission.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson enforced Executive Order 11246, which dealt with non-discriminatory practices in the hiring process. Godfather called Cruz and told him about a new position that had opened up: affirmative action officer. The job required 24/7 confrontation, but Cruz was well-versed in unpleasant encounters. He interviewed and got the job.
“I went from cleaning shit to wearing a suit,” Cruz said. “I told the chief administrator, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
Until then, Cruz had his high school education but no experience in applying it.
“We’ll pay for your education, but you have to buckle down and do it,” Godfather said.
Cruz took courses at Metro State and the University of Minnesota, earning an associate degree. Cruz had been thrown into the realm of white-collar workers, but he didn’t care about paychecks with extra zeros. He says he cared about bettering himself. Cruz passed down the lesson of hard work like a family recipe.
Marco, Cruz’s grandson, has lived with him in Hugo for 20 years, and for 20 years he’s been expected to be home for family dinner. Cruz has two other expectations: respect your mother, and try your best, even if your best isn’t good enough.
After Cruz retired in 1993, he took Marco and his brother, Frank, to flea markets twice a month. They would get up at 4 a.m. and stay until 5 p.m., selling refurbished furniture, among other things.
“If you want to raise money, then you have to sell your own stuff,” Cruz told his grandsons.
Marco and Frank took a trip to the vending machine and returned a few minutes later, pops in hand. They sat at the cash register and sold 50-cent pops for a dollar.
“His expectations set us up for success in anything,” Marco said. “It helped me to have the determination to not quit or to feel sorry for myself.”
According to Marco, Cruz’s only fear was that Marco and his brother would grow up to be uneducated.
The business of not backing down
Cruz can count his fears on two hands – a finger for each family member. One of these fingers represents his wife, Janice.
Cruz and Janice met at Stransky’s Nightclub in St. Paul, back when Cruz had a full head of hair and hips that could Merengue. He came with his friend, Nick the Bear, a thicker guy with a furry coat his mom bought from a secondhand store. It was favored to the alternative – the striped wool coats welfare kids wore. Mexicans have a lot of pride, Cruz explained. They wouldn’t be caught dead in the welfare uniform.
Augie Garcia, Cruz’s friend, took center stage. Two years earlier Garcia had opened for Elvis at the St. Paul Auditorium in 1956. Cruz joined the throng of dancers, and that’s when he saw her across the room.
“I’ll take the blonde,” Cruz told Nick the Bear.
“I’ll take the other one,” Nick the Bear replied.
They danced with the girls for hours, until closing time. Cruz shrugged on his jacket, a cashmere one that only people with big bucks could afford.
“Feel here,” he told Janice, holding out his arm. Her fingers brushed over the soft material.
They took the girls home, but Cruz swore nothing happened. One year later, Cruz married the blonde and Nick the Bear married the other one.
“I thought he was the best-looking thing ever,” Janice recalled.
Her parents weren’t so impressed. They were Swedish and didn’t plan on diversifying the bloodline. The first time Janice brought Cruz home, her mother told her, “I don’t want him darkening my doorstep.”
Cruz and Janice eloped to Mason City, Iowa, and got married above a drugstore.
Janice learned Cruz’s confrontational style early into the relationship, but she never learned to love it. When men tried to dance with Janice at the club, Cruz would say to them, “You wanna dance? Let’s go outside and dance.”
If Janice feels ill or falls, Cruz’s chest tightens. But place Cruz in a threatening situation and he won’t surrender a drop of sweat.
“I never really started any fights and I never promoted it, but I never backed down,” Cruz recalled.
His protectiveness led to what Cruz refers to as “confrontations.” One of these confrontations started with his friend, Peewee, and someone whom Peewee owed $10. It ended in an alley between bars, with Cruz being shot twice – once through the knuckle and once through his right side. Shit, he thought as the blood soaked through his shirt. How am I going to explain this to my wife?
“Maybe it was the way I was raised,” Cruz shrugged. “My parents taught me there are no bogeymen.”
One afternoon at Humboldt, Cruz left class for a bathroom break. He paused as he passed a member of the Hell’s Angels who had a little guy shoved up against the lockers.
“What are you doing?” Cruz asked.
“None of your business,” Fisher, the biker, growled.
“It is my business,” Cruz took a step forward. “What’d he do to you?”
“You think I’m afraid of you because you’re Mexican and carry a knife?” Fisher grunted.
Cruz’s nickname was “Jumping Joe,” one he earned from carrying a stiletto push-blade that jumped with the press of a button. Also, because he liked to cha-cha.
“I don’t care what you think,” Cruz told Fisher, now only a few inches away.
“Meet me after school,” Fisher challenged.
“I don’t want to wait after school,” Cruz said. “Let’s do this right now.”
They went to the field in the middle of the U-shaped building. Cruz let Fisher get a few punches in, taking the blows to his stomach. He observed patiently, waiting for Fisher to make a mistake.
Then it happened. The biker took off his leather jacket and Cruz grabbed ahold of it, wrapping it around Fisher’s head. Cruz kneed him a few times and Fisher went down like the scaffolding. He screamed as Cruz landed a couple solid kicks to his ribs. When Cruz straightened and turned, his gaze meeting with hundreds of faces pressed up against the school’s windows.
What’s the point in this? Cruz asked himself. He left the Hell’s Angel lying on the ground and went home.
The next day the principal called Cruz into his office.
“I know what happened and I don’t condone it. If you have a problem, bring it to the principal’s office,” he warned.
“Next time,” Cruz agreed.
But they both knew fighting was in his blood. He was in the business of not backing down.
“It’s nothing to be proud of,” Cruz said. “It’s just my reaction to things.”
When the Local 35 Union pushed Cruz in the late ’60s, his reaction was to push back. With his new management position at the waste commission, Cruz worked on getting women in the workplace. Since the commission was a closed shop – all union workers – he would need union support. Leaders flat out refused.
“What happened to me in the Plumbers Union, I saw happening in all of the other fields,” Cruz said.
He started to get fed up with the union and the Democrats – groups he lumped together – for what he calls blatant discrimination. He considered leaving, switching sides.
“We all know that the Mexicans and blacks should be Democrats,” the chairman of the party told him.
“Why would we want to be Democrats when you don’t want us to share in what we’re building here?” Cruz responded. “We’re doing the grunt work without being able to pursue a better life for ourselves.”
In 1979, Senator Al Quie ran for governor of Minnesota and won. Cruz wasn’t thrilled at first – Quie came from a long line of Republicans. Early into the governorship, Cruz received a call from Quie’s deputy. His affirmative action position had put his number in the government rolodex once again. Quie wanted to meet with him. Republican or not, Cruz wasn’t about to turn down the governor. A few days later, he found himself at the capitol.
“I want to send Mexicans to some positions because it’s too white,” Quie said. “But we don’t have any outreach into the Mexican community.”
According to Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, there were two Latinos in Minnesota legislature at the time. Quie’s and Cruz’s association quickly evolved into friendship. Together, they appointed several minorities into positions. A couple years passed and Cruz was asked to run for vice chairman of the Republican Party. Why not? Cruz thought. I can’t do much with the Democrats, so I’ll stick with the Republicans.
Cruz won and word traveled fast. A Mexican from West St. Paul was the vice chairman. That word traveled all the way to Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was visiting from Texas.
Cruz received a call from people working on his campaign – they were curious about the Hispanic community in Minnesota.
Cruz and his lawyer arranged a luncheon at the Minneapolis Club and invited Bush. The other attendees – CEOs of Honeywell, General Mills and 3M – were all involved in the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. When Bush arrived, it was a full house. He sat down on Cruz’s left, and Cruz’s mind idled like a rusty engine. Uncharacteristically nervous, he took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and lit up. Cruz rarely smoked. The haze of nicotine wafted downwind, assaulting Bush.
“I tell everyone I blew smoke at the president,” Cruz laughed.
Despite the misstep, Cruz says Bush was impressed with his work in the Hispanic business and education communities. They met three more times.
“I never forgot you,” Bush later told Cruz. “You’re the only Mexican I know up in Minnesota.”
Cruz now lives in Hugo with his wife and grandchildren. At 80, his aortic valve is closing, poisonous fluid is leaking from his appendix and a pacemaker bails out his heart, but it still beats strong.
One day he and Janice took a trip to visit their old house on the east side – the one they had moved into after marrying.
A woman’s car blocked the middle of the street as she chatted with a young man in a car idling at the curb. Cruz’s irritation spiked. Why is she taking up the entire road? All she has to do is pull over. He waited a sufficient two seconds before blowing the horn.
“Don’t do that!” Janice scolded. “She might have a gun.”
Cruz smirked. “If she has a gun, she better shoot straight.”