When Eliseo was just 21, and before he had ever been east of Texas, Chávez ordered him to Chicago to organize a grape boycott. Ferriss and Sandoval report, Eliseo “led the boycott in one of the biggest cities in the country, rubbing shoulders with powerful politicians and speaking at huge labor conventions. Eliseo found Chicago’s supermarkets tough to crack, however, and he resorted to organizing sit-ins in the middle of stores.” When Eliseo grew homesick, he called Chávez and asked if he could return to Delano. Chávez told him to stick it out, and Eliseo remained in Chicago for two years.
“We got every single chain store in Chicago to stop selling grapes,” Eliseo later recalled.
Eliseo parted ways with Chávez in 1978 after an argument over changes in the legal department of the United Farm Workers union. Eliseo recalled for Ferriss and Sandoval that Chávez challenged him to leave if he did not like the changes. “So I did,” Eliseo said. Still, he remembers those years as among the best in his life. Eliseo remained a labor organizer and has climbed the ranks of the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest unions. He was a driving force behind the successful Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and San Francisco and today, as executive vice president of the union, is organized labor’s de facto point man on immigration and amnesty issues. He is also masterminding a major campaign to organize L.A. County home health-care workers and another campaign at a chain of Catholic hospitals.
Medina was born just two years before Eliseo and Chávez went their different ways, but when he was growing up, he accompanied his father on voter registration drives and other union campaigns. The family moved around between hot, dusty cities, like Fresno and Keene in the Central Valley and Indio in the Coachella Valley. In 1979 the family moved to Long Beach; a year later Medina’s sister Elena was born. In a letter submitted with the defense’s sentencing document, Elena, an undergraduate at ucla, said that she admired her brother and respected his intellect. “He never pulled my hair, beat me up, or read my diary,” she wrote.
In 1981 the Medinas moved to Austin, Texas, where Dorothy entered law school. In Austin, Medina lived like most young boys. He collected baseball cards (and reportedly still has a great collection) and idolized the Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis. In a letter submitted with the sentencing document, Eliseo remembers Medina’s compassion on the soccer field. “David was always the first to help up his hurt teammates,” he wrote. Medina’s aunt, Shirley Johnston, remembered him as a “bright and cheerful little boy.” When Medina was ten, the family moved yet again, settling this time in Chula Vista. Medina entered the fifth grade at Kellogg Elementary. In 1989 Eliseo and Dorothy were separated; they divorced in 1993, when Medina was 17. Eliseo remarried in 1995; four years later, he and his wife adopted a daughter.
Medina attended Hilltop High School in Chula Vista, where he befriended gang members even as he managed to carry on a fruitful relationship with Claudia Martinez, graduate with honors in 1994, and win acceptance to UC San Diego. Medina had applied to UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC San Diego. He was accepted at all of the schools and entered Thurgood Marshall College at ucsd in 1994. In her letter in the sentencing document, Medina’s mother recalled, “When he got to ucsd, it was as if he discovered new talents and new possibilities within himself.” At ucsd Medina majored in sociology and minored in Urban Planning and in Law and Society. Medina took a wide variety of courses, including Spanish, Chaucer, African-American Literature, and Homelessness in America. He got an A in Youth, Crime, and Gangs.
At UCSD Medina also worked in the Summer Bridge Program, which helps underrepresented minority and economic populations prepare for college life. Throughout his years in college Medina impressed his professors. A sociology professor, Maria Charles, wrote, his “academic performance was excellent. I regarded him as one of the most talented and promising students in his cohort.” An ethnic studies professor, George Lipsitz, had a huge impact on Medina and admired his work ethic. Professor Lipsitz wrote, “During his last quarter at ucsd, I had many conversations with him in my office about his career goals and personal ambitions.” He added that Medina “radiated intelligence and empathy” and that others turned to him for “guidance.”
“His writing,” Lipsitz commented, “displayed moral passion and social compassion, asking — as all the best work in the humanities and social sciences does — what makes for a good community and a good society, what does one person owe to another and to society.”
A fellow student, Carl Christopher, also wrote a letter on Medina’s behalf: “I saw in David an unyielding passion for knowledge and human justice.” Another friend, Niroshi R. Dissanayake, wrote, “David is undoubtedly the single most inspiring figure in my life.”
Medina also worked in the weight room at ucsd’s recreational complex. He started as a supervisor and was quickly promoted to a “lead” position. His boss, Jeff Milton, wrote, “He was one of our best.” Jake Lacy, a coworker, noted, “Not only did David handle the pressure of being an honor student…he also is a very loving father.”
On December 29, 1995, Medina’s high school sweetheart Claudia gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Maya. Their parents were unhappy about the pregnancy, but Medina assured Claudia’s parents in their living room that he would care for the child and Claudia. In her letter, Claudia remembered that during her pregnancy Medina frequently read her passages from books he found on prenatal care. In June 1996, Medina and Claudia married, only to separate nine months later, though they shared custody of Maya. Maya’s baby-sitters said in their joint statement that she would cry for her father “when she was sleepy or tired.”
Claudia’s parents came to respect Medina for his hard work and parenting. In her letter in the sentencing document, Maria Martinez recalled that when Claudia was in high school, Medina would go around to her teachers when she was sick to collect her homework assignments. Medina’s mother described how he would pack Maya lunch because she liked watching him make his own lunches to bring to work. Medina also paid for Maya’s health-care premiums.