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From the Fields to Philly

Speaker: California assemblyman, son of a farm worker, speaks tonight. His atypical story resonates for GOP.


SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Lumbering along a rutted dirt road, Abel Maldonado Sr. dipped his rancher's hat and slowed his huge pickup to a halt. To his left lay an emerald expanse of broccoli, to his right a sea of strawberries.

For more than 20 years, the former bracero explained in Spanish, he toiled dawn to dusk in these fields along California's Central Coast. Now he owns them. His story is a Latino Horatio Alger tale that his son, GOP Assemblyman Abel Maldonado Jr., will share with millions tonight--in Spanish--in a televised speech at the Republican National Convention.

In that historic moment, the little-known freshman lawmaker will soar from the back benches of the California Legislature to prime time, an hour before George W. Bush accepts the GOP presidential nomination. His is, in fact, the most significant convention role for any state politician in the diminished California delegation.

And "Don Abel," as the farm workers now call his 53-year-old father, will see his life add living color to Bush's message that the Republicans are the party of opportunity for Latino immigrants.

"Can you believe it?" the 32-year-old politician chimed in from the truck's back seat last week as father and son showed off their growing agriculture empire. "Only in America."

Without question, the up-from-the-bootstraps story of the Maldonados, Mexican immigrants who went from poverty to wealth in a generation, reads like a modern fairy tale. From a half-acre strawberry plot the Maldonados maintained at night after working the fields for others, their business, Agro-Jal, mushroomed into a multimillion-dollar operation that farms 1,200 acres and exports crops to Tokyo and Hong Kong.

But as the GOP's representation of the possibilities available to hard-working immigrant farmhands, the Maldonados' success story is atypical. The bracero program, which legally brought more than 2 million Mexican agricultural workers into the United States during and after World War II, came to an abrupt end in the 1960s amid criticism that it was institutionalized slavery.

"The story of braceros staying in this country is fairly common," said Marc Grossman of the United Farm Workers Union. "An inconsequential percentage became growers. Most suffered poverty and exploitation."

Exploitation is not the way the Maldonados describe their life in the fields. To them, it is a story of sweat and simple values.

Abel Maldonado Sr. came to America from the Mexican state of Jalisco at age 17 in 1964. After a few years bumping around California's Central Valley, he settled in Santa Maria, an unpretentious farm town between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. At a dance in Pismo Beach, he met his future wife, Gloria, a young cauliflower worker from New Mexico.

"He didn't speak English. She didn't speak Spanish," Maldonado Jr. said. "I was born a year later."

Maldonado Sr. distinguished himself as an indefatigable worker. He became a foreman, driving a tractor and serving as irrigator on a fruit and vegetable farm. He had only a second-grade education but quickly learned to nurture crops and stretch a dollar.

"My father always asked us to focus on the future," Maldonado Jr. said. "He would sit at the dinner table and tell us, 'Look kids, if we do not spend any money, this will continue to grow,' " and point to his little bank account book.

It did. Maldonado Sr. joined a fledgling cooperative where Latino workers, with money from the government and a local church, sharecropped tiny plots during off-hours. After school, Maldonado Jr. would join his father in the fields.

After a rough first cauliflower crop, the business blossomed.

All the Maldonados worked on the farm. Abel Maldonado Jr. "knows how to pick strawberries, he knows how to fix motors, he knows everything" about running the business, his father notes with pride. But fate took him in a different direction.

Frustrated trying to get a building permit for the farm's massive produce cooler, Maldonado Jr. ran for Santa Maria City Council in 1994. Just a few years out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he surprised everyone by winning.

"My mother cried," he said, but not tears of joy. "She was upset I was going to be leaving the farm."

Two years later, at age 28, he was elected mayor--over an incumbent with 34 years of public service--on a pledge to heal what was becoming a racially divided city. Two years later, he easily won a vacant state Assembly seat, becoming one of only four GOP Latinos in the Legislature's lower house.

In Sacramento, Maldonado Jr. has carried little significant legislation, and some of his colleagues consider him a lightweight who mostly runs with the pack. Yet he has been willing to buck the Republican status quo, voting to toughen California's assault weapon ban last year after an emotional debate in which he said such guns are "weapons of war."

And he eagerly cast a vote for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' budget this year, upsetting some of his Republican colleagues but protecting a bevy of "pork" projects in his district.

As he walked through the farm's cooler last week, with its neatly stacked crates of broccoli iced and ready for shipment, Maldonado Jr. admitted he sometimes wonders what he's doing in the Capitol.

A licensed pilot, he zips back to Santa Maria on weekends. He and his wife, Laura, whom he met at a Taco Bell while attending Cal Poly, have four children.

"Sometimes I think to myself, 'I have a great business!' " he said. "I really miss it."

"Last week I was writing my speech and my father, who never comes into the office, said, 'Abel, I want you to tell the people what America has done for me,' " said Maldonado Jr.

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