Honoring the Life and Family of Rick Gonzales Sr.
By Adrienne Monroe
Rick Gonzales Sr. was born in Saguache, Colorado in 1919 and raised in Elko, Nevada. He was drafted into World War II, as was the case for a disproportionate number of minorities back then. Still, he would proudly serve his country in Okinawa in the Pacific campaign. As anyone in the military will tell you, regulation haircuts are a regular occurrence. But back in those days, just getting a haircut wasn’t exactly easy. Latinos in Woodland would have to drive all the way to Sacramento for a haircut because barbershops in town would not serve them. Recognizing the absurdity of this, and upon his Honorable Discharge from the military, Rick Gonzales enrolled in barber school in San Francisco where he met his wife, Angela Duran. Together they had four sons, LaVerne, Garry, Rick Jr. and Jerry.
Barber school would soon prove to be far more than a career decision; it was a move that would open Rick’s eyes and begin his lifelong journey as an agent for change for many Latinos throughout Woodland and Yolo County. In 1953, Rick’s Top Hat barbershop was open for business in Woodland and it wasn’t long before the community realized that not only was Rick pretty good with a straight razor, but he was a good listener and a true friend as well. Though English was his first language, he learned to speak Spanish and soon the barbershop became a central hub of information on political and social issues.
Rick and Angela knew that women in the community would also be an important component for bringing about social and political justice. Angela opened the Velvet Touch Beauty Salon. Many Latinos in leadership positions today were once the small children found hanging around the barbershop or the beauty salon asking questions, and finding inspiration to go out and change the world. Rick called these critical moments with people, “teaching moments.” And so it was as generations of people, who thought they were just going in for a haircut, came out with a new lease on life.
Giving a voice to the “voiceless” and restoring hope to the disenfranchised of all races was Rick’s destiny. He had a natural talent for analyzing problems and though he came within just a few votes of victory, when Rick ran for City Council, Sacramento’s first Latino Mayor Joe Serna himself came to help him. His innate leadership qualities naturally placed his as Chairman of many boards and commissions upon which he served. He was the Youth Group President for the Pan American Club, Chairman of the Park and Recreation Commission, the only person in Yolo County to receive the prestigious Liberty Bell Award from the Yolo County Bar Association twice, a member of the Grand Jury, one of the founding members of the Concilio of Yolo County and Chairman of the Economic Opportunity Commission’s War On Poverty. Just to name a few.
A life-long friend in the 70’s, David Armendariz, gave Rick the nickname “The Godfather” because he was involved in just about everything and truly embraced people as his own family. In fact, he would often introduce people as relatives when there was no blood relation, but to Rick this did not matter. He loved them and he claimed them.
Just as he loved and claimed members of the community as his own family, shortly before his passing, his community claimed him. And they wanted him to know it. While it is customary to name public buildings after someone who is deceased, in 2004, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to name the Department of Employment and Social Services building in honor of the many contributions he gave to the people of Yolo County and to humanity. It was the last ceremony he would ever attend.
Rick Gonzales Sr. and his entire family, made many sacrifices of discretionary family time and income along the way. Hundreds of deserving students were guided toward the path of financial aid and professional success. Hundreds more received letters of recommendation to help them get good jobs. Now Rick Jr. continues the important work started by his father many years ago with the Concilio. When asked to give five words to describe his father, Rick Jr. replied, “Dedication, Leadership, Equality for All, Compassionate, Negotiator.” Rick’s wife Angela was at his side helping him even in his final days, comforted by the outpouring of untold stories and gratitude from hundreds who came forward to tell how her husband made a difference for them.
There is still much work to be done and now it is up to the next generation of leaders. Today 32% of Californians are Latino and 1 in 3 are living at or below the poverty line. If one man in a barbershop could do so much to change his world, always making time for those “teaching moments,” just think of what is possible for young people today.