Orphaned young and destined to work in the fields, Ernie Segovia overcame a host of early obstacles to become a prominent community activist and Roman Catholic reformer in San Jose's Latino community during the 1960s and 1970s.
"He was a man of peace," said Hermelinda Sapien, director of the Center for Employment and Training, a nonprofit training program where Segovia also counseled students on personal and professional matters. "But he was very firm in his values, especially when it came to defending the rights of workers and improving the lives of farmworkers and workers in general."
During his 43 years in San Jose with his late wife, Sara, Segovia worked primarily out of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the heart of the city's Mexican-American community. On Saturday, a special memorial celebration will be held at that parish, where Segovia served as a deacon. He died recently at age 83.
Chavez and Kennedy
Segovia was part of a local group of reform-minded Catholics, led by the Rev. Anthony Soto, who designed the new church -- literally and figuratively -- to serve the social, political, economic and religious needs of the people. The Church's liberal Second Vatican Council was in full swing, allowing lay people and nuns to set parish agendas and priorities and reach out beyond the pulpit.
"Listen, why should churches be built like warehouses?" he told San Jose State professor Susana L. Gallardo last year. "All you can see is the back of people, the priest."
The group designed the church with circular seating and built it almost entirely with volunteer labor and donations. It soon hosted a variety of community and labor meetings. Farmworker leader Cesar Chavez recruited there and Robert F. Kennedy visited during his presidential quest.
The building, Segovia said, "had to be more important and used for many more things than only on Sundays for one hour."
Segovia was appointed a deacon by the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1978. One of the cornerstones of his ministry was the belief that Latinos and other minorities should be free to worship in their own languages and cultures.
"The people who teach religion in the churches ... most know very little about our culture," said Segovia. "We need to deal with our own needs, in our own language, in our own traditions, in our own way."
Ernesto Segovia was born in 1929 in the small town of La Union, N.M. Orphaned at age 8, he was raised by older brothers and sisters and migrated from farm to farm from the Mexican state of Chihuahua to California's Central Valley, eventually settling in Hollister. That's where he met Sara Gonzales, whom he married in 1951. He later worked as a candy maker and janitor.
After being appointed a deacon, Segovia threw himself into union organizing, strove to improve the impoverished Sal Si Puedes neighborhood, protested against the war in Vietnam and participated in several Catholic discussion and planning groups. Although he had little formal education, Segovia read voraciously and conversed as easily with bishops and theologians as he did with farmworkers.
Before retiring to Tuolumne County, Gallardo said, Segovia had baptized hundreds of children in churches, in homes, on the banks of rivers and creeks and in the backs of cars.
"We're not there to preach religion," he told Gallardo. "The community's enough, to get together and share, be concerned for each other, listen to each other, and go on, celebrate, break bread and all that. Just like they used to do in the beginning, with Jesus, see?"
Segovia was buried in Hollister. Relatives and friends will gather to remember him at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the church he helped to build.
Born: April 29, 1929, in La Union, New Mexico
Died: Oct. 26, 2012, in Twain Harte
Survived by: Sister Nancy Corral, of Hollister; brother Ruben Segovia, of Mendota.
Memorial celebration: 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Jose.