From Migrant Laborer To Visionary Community Leader

Charles Trevino, the city’s elected representative on the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, relaxes at a South Pasadena restaurant. Photo by Sally Kilby

At 16, Charles Trevino worked as a migrant laborer. Today, at 71, the South Pasadena resident is a longtime elected official — with an inspiring story.

Trevino serves on the board of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District (Upper District), a water wholesaler. He was elected by voters in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

On the Upper District, he represents several jurisdictions, including South Pasadena.

He is part of a five-member board that serves almost a million residents. The district spans from South Pasadena on the west to Glendora in the east and from Bradbury on the north to Hacienda Heights on the south.

“The purpose of the Upper District,” Trevino said, “is to assure that our residents have access to clean, affordable and reliable water.”

Trevino came from humble beginnings. He was the oldest of six children growing up poor in San Antonio, Texas. His parents, who were born in Texas, had little or no formal education. His grandparents had come from Mexico.

For reasons he said are still unclear, as an infant Trevino was turned over to his grandfather to raise. His siblings grew up with his parents in the projects on San Antonio’s predominantly Mexican west side.

“I was raised by my grandfather and uncle,” Trevino said in an interview.

His grandfather, Eduardo Saenz, was his mother’s father. He had been a bricklayer but had retired due to a work injury.

Trevino did not speak English when he started first grade. No one else in his family spoke it either, he said.

“It was a Mexican school,” Trevino said, “but all the teachers were Anglo.” The teachers were not bilingual.

“I was punished and paddled for speaking Spanish in school,” he said.

“It was a humbling experience to be in that school,” he said, “and that’s why I made it my priority to learn English well.”

His efforts were reinforced by one particular teacher. “My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Spangler,” he said, “told us, ‘You’re going to learn English and you’re going to learn it well.’ ” 

At home, his grandfather made certain Trevino was also proficient in Spanish. The older man was intensely proud of his own heritage.

Grandfather Saenz also taught Trevino how to conduct himself in life.

“For example,” Trevino said, “he taught me we take our hat off in a classroom and at the dining table. We don’t interrupt people while they are speaking and wait to be acknowledged.” 

“I also trace my love of books to my grandfather,” Trevino said. “He bought me paperback classics at the grocery store that were written for children.” His favorite was “The Last of the Mohicans.’’

A very young Trevino with the grandfather who raised him. Photo courtesy of Charles Trevino

His grandfather also made sure he went to school.

Despite numerous challenges, Trevino said, “I had a great childhood … baseball and comic books.”

When Trevino was a pre-teen, his grandfather developed Alzheimer’s disease. They both moved into his parents’ small apartment. That created tension between his parents, Trevino said. His grandfather was sent to a nursing home and later passed away.

Once in high school and without his grandfather’s influence, Trevino began skipping classes. However, he said, “I loved my drafting class. But after class, I would just get lost.”

As a teen, Trevino became a migrant worker.

“Labor contractors came to San Antonio looking for people to work,” he said. “We got in the back of a truck, and we took off for the Midwest.” His parents didn’t object.

Eventually, Trevino’s drafting class helped him find work. He was hired by Chicago Rawhide Manufacturing Company in Aurora as a junior draftsman, he said. He later worked at a dairy in Wisconsin.

With his earnings, Trevino purchased a car. Although he had never operated a vehicle and did not have a license, he drove back to Texas, he said. In 1966, at 18, he decided to leave San Antonio for good.

He sold his car to his father and traveled by bus to Los Angeles, he said. There he lived with an aunt in Eagle Rock.

His first position was as a cafeteria dishwasher at General Hospital. This is now the Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Medical Center. He then worked in patient accounts. He enlisted in the Army and obtained a GED diploma while serving. After discharge, he worked as a Los Angeles County police officer.

Trevino then embarked on an impressive 50-year career as a public servant and as a community activist. He earned an associate’s degree from Los Angeles Trade Tech and then an undergraduate degree in political science from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1973.

“I was the first in my family to get a degree, and I am very proud of that,” he said.

That’s why he still wears his college ring, he said.

He later earned a teaching credential from UCLA and a master’s degree in education. He has an administrative credential from San Diego’s Point Loma Nazarene University.

He taught real estate part time at Los Angeles City College and East Los Angeles College.

In the 1970s, he worked as a real estate agent for Los Angeles County. He was a planner and project director for a community development agency in East Los Angeles, as well.

In addition, he served as the unpaid president of the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association. Then he returned to teaching at the LA Unified School District. He also served as the amnesty and naturalization coordinator at an adult school from 1987 to 1992. He later worked in housing for the City of Los Angeles and co-owned a Pasadena-based realty company.

In the 1990s, he held positions as a city manager and as the administrative dean of the Los Angeles Technology Center. He served as assistant principal of school operations for Huntington Park Adult School, he said.

After retiring from the L.A. Unified in 2001, he accepted a position as principal public affairs representative for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He served  for 12 years until 2014.

His career as an appointed or elected official is extensive. He was elected three times to the board of the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a water wholesaler serving southeast Los Angeles. He was a board member from 1994 until 2003.

Trevino’s successes can be attributed in part to his insatiable desire to learn. “I’ve always been a ‘Curious George,’ ” he said.

In addition, he is unafraid of taking a risk. “I love challenges,” he said. He said he is not intimidated by naysayers or people in high positions. “If I were,” he said, “I never would have run for public office. I never would have left Texas.”

Trevino’s remarkable journey can inspire others. He said the key is within.

“What seems to be impossible can be achieved if you believe in yourself,” he said.