Born to farmworker parents, Cesar Flores served as an Air Force flight line mechanic, spent over 50 years with El Teatro Campesino, worked with the National Park Service in the Conservation Corps, served as the principal at Chamberlain House and as president of the San Benito Arts Council. He still rides with the Top Hatters Motorcycle Club and is now retiring after four years on the San Juan Bautista City Council.
An impeccably cool and unpretentious presence, Flores, who turned 80 on Nov. 16, has spent his life working to elevate the community, never forgetting his humble beginnings.
“I grew up working the fields at six years old”, Flores said. “I was planting onions at eight and shining shoes in bars when I was nine. Just a young boy from Texas, you know, a farmworker. And I’m always gonna be that guy.”
He was born in Clare, Michigan, and his family migrated between there and Texas, depending on the season and the weather. The contrast between the two places, for Flores, was stark.
“The white people up north treated us as human beings,” Flores said, “whereas down in Texas, where we were the majority, we were treated really badly. The discrimination was right out front of me, with white-only signs in restaurants and segregation in the schools. It was weird because, to me, people were people from the get-go because that’s the way we were raised with my grandma.”
Flores joined the Air Force in 1959 at the age of 17, becoming a mechanic at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nevada, in the early days of the Vietnam War. He left the service in 1964 and enrolled at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, graduating with an associate degree in engineering design. But a night class in theater arts had a greater impact on his life.
“They were putting on a student production, and the theme for it was ‘everybody is a star,’” he said. “They were doing vignettes of Jules Pfeiffer cartoons from Playboy magazine. With the action and the music, I was really taken away by all of that. My first big role was in ‘The Man of La Mancha,’ not a speaking role, but a prominent role as the head of the Gypsies. I had a big Afro, so, of course, I fit right in.”
After graduating, Flores started working in the aerospace industry, but the lure of the theater was strong, and he left his job to join El Teatro Campesino, which had just come to San Juan to establish a permanent home for the company.
“I remember him vividly when he came from Los Angeles,” said Teatro founder Luis Valdez. “He drove a bright red sports car and had an Afro haircut. He was really quite dashing. He had a perfectly good job in the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and he had a future there, but he decided to make a turn and follow us into the world of the arts, transforming into a member of the Teatro Campesino family as an actor and activist and our spiritual brother.”
Flores said that, at that time, only he and Valdez had any formal training in theater, but he found a place with the nascent company.
“I didn’t care if I had any income or not,” he said. “We ate what the county would give us, things like cans with no labels. It was a potluck every day. But we were a troupe. We lived together and shared with each other, so I still consider all of those people my Teatro family. Once you get that tight, it’s hard to break the bond.”
In July 1974 Flores married Kathy Delgado at El Tajín, an ancient archeological site in Veracruz, Mexico, on a Teatro excursion to perform in Mexico City.
“It was the culmination of our fifth Chicano Theater Festival,” Valdez said. “We had performed four of them in California, and this was an international gathering with groups from all over South America, Latin America and the United States. The wedding was done right at the foot of a pyramid, and an Aztec dance captain was the priest. It was an important event for us because they were sealing their future together in the context of El Teatro Campesino, and they are still part of our community.”
Needing a job and not wanting to commute to tech jobs in Silicon Valley, Flores was hired to train workers and provide them with jobs in public service under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. He eventually began working for the National Park Service to run a youth camp in the Pinnacles under the auspices of the Conservation Corps. After a year and a half, he was made the regional Hispanic Employment Program manager for the Parks Service in San Francisco, which meant a long commute and terrible traffic.
“I also managed to get smart, and I got a motorcycle,” he said. “I had ridden a couple of times before because my roommate in the service had a motorcycle. Traffic was easier, and I did not have to worry about parking because I drove right into the Federal Building.”
His interest in riding led him to join Hollister’s Top Hatters Motorcycle Club in 1993.
“The club was actually started way back in 1947, and they didn’t have a constitution or anything like that,” he said. “So when I came on board, I saw that they needed one, and I wrote the constitution and the bylaws so we could become a nonprofit that centers on charity work, like our canned food drives and the scholarships we hand out.”
After a few years of doing the daily three-hour round-trip commute, he gave up the Parks Service job for one with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in San Jose.
“The drive got old after a while,” he said. “I would leave in the morning, and my kids would be asleep, and I would come home in the evening, and the kids would be asleep. In the new job, I investigated discrimination in private industry and, for once in my life, I could tell other people what to do.”
Offered an early retirement at 50 because of government cutbacks, Flores accepted it and began a new career closer to home as a K-12 substitute teacher. One of his first jobs was at Chamberlain House, working with at-risk youth. He proved to be so valuable that he was given a certification that would allow him to become a special education teacher and, six months later, he was promoted to principal.
“I told them, ‘You guys are going the wrong way at this,’” he said. “‘I’m not an expert in anything other than theater, but you can’t teach these kids anything because they don’t have socialization skills. I’m going to teach them some so they can learn to work together. They don’t have that now.’”
Leaning on his Teatro experience, Flores showed the students the kinds of theater games used in workshops to build relationships among the actors. “I had them marching up and down and all over the place,” he said. “They were doing little skits and making films, and the kids loved that.”
Flores was offered a permanent job but declined it in favor of working with the San Benito Arts Council.
“I was president of the council for 11 years,” he said. “We started with a $30,000 grant from developers. People said, ‘You would take money from them?’ and I would say, ‘You bet—I want to get this thing going.’ And after 10 years, our working budget was a quarter of a million dollars.”
Over the last four years, Flores has been active on the San Juan Bautista City Council, including serving as mayor and vice mayor. While not saying much during meetings, what he added was usually straight to the point, which is something City Manager Don Reynolds has come to appreciate.
“On the City Council, he’s in silent mode almost always,” Reynolds said. “But he’s a key component for stability and often breaks through as the third vote on divisive issues. He is generous with his time and in his compassion for the city. His tolerance and forgiveness are just amazing.”
Retiring in January at the end of his term, Flores says he is still deciding what he will do after that, but he knows he will be busy.
“I guess my whole focus will be on projects in the community, like San Juan’s new Senior Center,” he said. “But there’s always a lot of stuff going on that you can get involved with, and there are always things to volunteer for—and I’m good at that. I’m not the type who just sits around doing nothing.”
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