SAN JOAQUIN, Calif. — The towns where Cruz Bustamante grew up were little more than rest stops on two-lane roads that crisscrossed vast tracts of farmland and disappeared into the heat.
Here, in California's breadbasket, a young man's fate was largely determined by the shade of his skin.
In the early 1970s, the white students at Bustamante's high school mostly joined the band and went on to college or took over their parents' farms. The Latinos, a sizable and growing minority, worked the fields during summer and after graduation went to work on a city maintenance crew or county police force. The ones who "made it" got to the big city, Fresno, home to nearly 166,000 in 1970.
The grandson of Mexican immigrants and the first of six children, Bustamante managed to live on both sides of the divide.
"There was something special about him, the way he walked around campus," said Tony Barajas, then a bus driver and now an administrator at the school, Tranquillity High. "He was what you call a true American. He wasn't a Hispanic. He wasn't an Anglo. He mixed with everyone."
Growing up in a conservative region as his own family rallied for farm workers' rights, Bustamante learned to balance competing interests. It was a skill essential in his rise to the near pinnacle of state politics.
Now 50, Bustamante is a leading candidate in the Oct. 7 recall election, seeking to become the first Latino governor in modern California history.
His steady approach to the issues, though, sometimes comes across as plodding, even bland.
"The thing he has a hard time with is that he doesn't have a strong presence," said Carol Whiteside, president of the Great Valley Center, a community group. "Schwarzenegger has a lot of presence. Cruz is a simple person."
Though often considered a moderate, Bustamante is not always easy to predict. He alienated Gov. Gray Davis when, as a new lieutenant governor, he publicly derided Davis' efforts to mediate a court battle over Proposition 187, the initiative that sought to strip state benefits from undocumented immigrants. And he surprised some foes by standing up for agribusiness against environmentalists calling for greater regulation.
His strategy has mostly proved successful -- but not always with hometown voters. In last year's race for lieutenant governor, the San Joaquin Valley favored his Republican opponent.
Born in Dinuba in 1953, then a town of about 5,000, Bustamante spent his first five years immersed in Spanish. But when his kindergarten teacher reported that he was lagging behind other students, his parents gave him their own crash course in English. "At that point, instead of being Cruz Miguel Bustamante, I became Michael," he recalled. "And everybody was required to talk to me in English."
Many relatives and friends still call him Michael. It wasn't until junior high school that Bustamante started going by Cruz.
By that time, his Spanish had eroded. Years later, when he entered the state Legislature, Bustamante would spend a week each year in Mexico to make his Spanish good enough for the campaign trail and interviews with the Spanish-language press. "My Spanish is still not great," he said.
About the same time Bustamante began his childhood plunge into English, his father spotted a business opportunity and moved the family from Dinuba across the valley to tiny San Joaquin. He opened the town's first barbershop. Dinuba, though, remained the family hub. His grandparents lived side by side on South Q Street, and the Bustamante family would visit most weekends.
In 1946, a UCLA social scientist studying the effects of agriculture on rural communities declared Dinuba a utopia of conservative values. But many of the town's Latino residents, who began arriving en masse in the 1950s to pick fruit and cotton, did not see it that way.
Until the 1990s, there were no Latinos in local government or on the school board. Most lived south of the railroad tracks. The children played in a park they called the "Tortilla Flat." Neighbors remember Bustamante as a reserved and curious child.
"He was always very interested in us," said Elaine Konatsu-Borjon, who grew up next door to his grandparents. "He was very quiet, and he liked to listen to stories."
Bustamante recalls his parents working the harvests. "I grew up in the vineyard day-care center," he said. "Or sometimes the orchard day-care center. Or sometimes in the packing house day-care center."
By the mid-1960s, the farm workers' rights movement, led by Cesar Chavez, was sweeping California. Bustamante's parents signed up. It was an early education in politics for the children, who sometimes found themselves at meetings of farm workers or local government. "We'd do our homework in the back," said Bustamante's brother Ron, a 46-year-old high school teacher in Visalia.