The following comes from a June 12 Contra Costa Times article by Joe Rodriguez:
SAN JOSE — A career that started in academia and then embraced the teachings of Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi and Cesar Chavez — a life’s work honored by the Vatican in 2011 — ended on Sunday when Salvador E. Alvarez died at home in San Jose after a long, debilitating illness. He was 74.
At age 30, Alvarez became one of the youngest college professors in California, co-founding the Graduate School of Social Work at San Jose State.
A devout Catholic, he was recruited in the late 1960s by the U.S. Conference of Bishops to focus on the spiritual needs of Latinos, which included introducing Spanish-language masses and bringing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas, into local churches. It wasn’t easy going up against tradition-bound parish priests, according to Sylvia Alvarez.
In 1975, a handful of Latino deacons visited their home to recruit Alvarez, figuring he could do more from inside the church as a deacon. Sylvia Alvarez remembered his reaction: “He told them, ‘Are you kidding me? They’ll never let me in the church!'”
The deacons left, but came back the next week. Alvarez agreed to give it a go and, to his great surprise, according his widow, he was accepted and eventually ordained a deacon in 1979. While many deacons work day jobs, Alvarez turned the position into a career. Sylvia became the breadwinner.
“Our way of supporting the movement was to support him,” she said.
Alvarez seemed to be everywhere over the next few decades, including Washington, where he huddled with Congressman Peter Rodino and Sen. Alan Simpson to plan the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986. In 1997, he was arrested with actor Martin Sheen in Watsonville as they and group of Quakers demanded better treatment and pay for farmworkers from a local grower.
“He had a lot of passion and he was a charismatic leader,” Sylvia Alvarez said. “At home, it was hard for him to relax. There was always that energy to get things done.” He developed a specialty in conflict resolution, counseling troubled youths and dysfunctional families through his Institute for Non-Violence. More recently, Alvarez continued his work to win national historic landmark status for church sites where Cesar Chavez honed his organizing skills.
The Rev. Jon Pedigo recalled how one summer two decades ago, Alvarez was trying to get more Roman Catholic priests from the Bay Area to visit Watsonville so he could show them the exploitation of farmworkers up close.
“I don’t care how you get those priests on the bus to Watsonville, but you have to get them there!” Pedigo recalled. He delivered the priests as Alvarez ordered, and then watched and listened in awe as the deacon introduced them to the harsh realities of the fields and explained to them the brutality of agricultural politics as practiced in Sacramento and Washington.
“It was a successful trip,” Pedigo recalled with a laugh, “and Sal gave me all the credit.”
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI awarded Alvarez the prestigious “Pro Eccesia et Pontifice (For Church and Pope)” award for his work on civil rights in the United States and as a delegate on peace missions to 20 nations, including South Africa, Israel, El Salvador, Mexico, Uganda and Ethiopia.