Before completing college and before Sandra and I decided to have a family, I threw the original plan of earning a teaching credential to the wayside, which would have taken another three semesters. With my dream of becoming a teacher subservient to my need to begin a career, I felt that I had lost too much time during the years I had stumbled through life trying to soothe the pain of my failures. Not sure what a twenty-nine year old college graduate with a history degree could do other than teach high school history, I wondered what direction to pursue and where the opportunities may be.
Then fate stepped in. During the spring before graduation, Sandra and I were visiting her parents on a Saturday afternoon when a friend from college, Damian Trujillo, called to invite me to the 25th anniversary celebration for a local job training program. Damian was determined, hard-working, and ambitious; he worked part-time at KSJS, the San Jose State radio station, and dreamed of becoming a television reporter.
I had taken some Mexican American Studies classes with Damian and we became friends when we worked together on the planning committee of a national academic conference the Mexican American Studies Department hosted at San Jose State. It was the first time I was part of a team that developed and produced a large conference that attracted people from throughout the country. Today, Damian is recognized as one of the most respected and well-known newsman in the valley.
The featured speaker at the job training center anniversary event would be Cesar Chavez, the great labor leader and civil rights icon who found the United Farm Workers of America. Sandra encouraged me to go because her advisor in high school, George Shirakawa, Sr., was a city councilman who probably would be at the event and might be willing to advise me about getting a job at the city if I told him that I was married her.
With nothing to wear, my old suits didn’t fit anymore and we didn’t have money or time to get a new one, I called Rudy and borrowed his only suit. Years later, at an event I had invited him to attend where he wore a perfectly tailored blue business suit, he would recount that I taught him that every man must always have at least one suit, just in case one was needed. Looking very much the politician in Rudy’s black suit with white shirt and red tie, I headed to downtown San Jose with Damian to attend the first political event of my life.
The celebration, held in San Jose’s cavernous convention center’s main hall, was attended by the valley’s political glitterati. Feeling absolutely natural in that environment, I moved about the hall effortlessly introducing myself to everyone who looked familiar from television news and newspaper stories: the valley’s congressional representative, state legislators, a future San Jose mayor, and a city councilwoman who was the grand dame of Latino politics in Silicon Valley.
I even approached Cesar Chavez himself and extended my hand in introduction. During the few seconds I spent shaking Chavez’s hand and exchanging cordial salutations, I saw the powerful yet humble determination in his eyes that made him a national civil rights hero. Even though it was clear to see that these politicians would forget our interaction the second I walked away, I was instantly mesmerized by politics that night.
Toward the end of the evening, I finally saw the prize, the reason I decided to accept Damian’s last-minute invitation, Councilman George Shirakawa, Sr. He was walking quickly through the crowd with a small entourage that included his son George, a local school board trustee. Mr. Shirakawa was an admired teacher and counselor before entering politics, and George, Jr. was a popular high school athlete before his election to the school board. Together there were revered in their part of town in south central San Jose.
I stepped in Mr. Shirakawa’s path, jutted out my hand, and introduced myself. He was a husky, gregarious man with a beaming smile, a booming voice, and a personality that filled the spacious hall. He was a wearing a black tuxedo with a colorful matching vest and bow tie. With the same distant look in his eyes as the other politicians I met, he shook my hand, said hello, and began to continue his march through the hall.
When I told him that I was married to Sandra Peralta, he stopped in his tracks, smiled even bigger, and in that commanding voice told me that if I was married to “Sandy Peralta,” I must be a good man. He then handed me his business card, directed me to call his office on Monday, and disappeared into the crowd.