This champion for migrants opened health clinics, started Chicano studies at Fresno State

A protest to La Raza Studies being cut at Fresno State in 1970 included a march to Fresno City College.
A protest to La Raza Studies being cut at Fresno State in 1970 included a march to Fresno City College. Fresno Bee file

Eliezer Joaquin Risco Lozada, known by many as “Risco,” improved health care, working conditions and education for migrants throughout the central San Joaquin Valley and California. The Fresno man helped Mexican Americans by rallying with labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, leading the first Chicano studies program at Fresno State, opening rural health clinics in the Valley, and later becoming an Episcopal pastor.

risco as pastor
Eliezer Joaquin Risco Lozada became an Episcopal pastor later in his life. LOZADA FAMILY Special to The Bee

“His calling was to help people,” says daughter Ishlatiya Risco-Lambert, “and that’s what he did his entire life.” Mr. Risco died June 15 at the age of 80 in Fresno.

He fled his homeland of Cuba as a young man to avoid imprisonment for protesting leader Fidel Castro. He made his way to L.A., where in the 1960s he served as editor of La Raza newspaper and helped plan student walkouts protesting unequal conditions in schools – activism that landed him and others in jail for conspiracy to disturb the peace. He helped Chavez organize the iconic 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento to protest working conditions of farm workers.

Gilbert Padilla, a former United Farm Workers vice president, remembers him as “a good human being” – an intelligent, friendly and hard-working man who never complained.

He was that guiding light – the spiritual guiding light – of this movement.

Arcadio Viveros

Mr. Risco’s passion for social justice resulted in an offer to teach at Fresno State, where he led the university’s first La Raza Studies program in the late 1960s. It was abruptly cut in 1970 but later reinstated and is now called Chicano and Latin American Studies. Mr. Risco’s successor at Fresno State, Alex Saragoza, now professor emeritus of Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Berkeley, applauded his work as an educator.

“His broad knowledge of Latin America brought a broad lens to the understanding of Latinos in the U.S. that was unusual at the time,” Saragoza says. “Risco was very dedicated to the effort to build the program in the midst of a difficult, complicated period for the development of La Raza Studies-type academic units in California specifically, and in the U.S. in general.”

A graduation cap during a 2005 Fresno State commencement. Eliezer Joaquin Risco Lozada started Fresno State’s La Raza Studies at the university. VIDA EN VALLE file Vida Staff Photo

After La Raza Studies was cut at Fresno State, Mr. Risco and other Fresno State faculty and students established a new college, the now-closed Colegio de la Tierra in Fresno, which offered similar courses.

Soon after, Mr. Risco left his work in education to become a leader in health administration, securing federal funds for the medically indigent and helping open a number of rural clinics in Fresno County – including Sanger, Kerman and Mendota – through his work with Chicanos in Health Education and Planning, Sequoia Community Health Foundation, United Health Centers of the San Joaquin Valley and the California Rural Health Association.

“Risco was the thinker, the motor behind all these ideas,” says friend Arcadio Viveros, who worked alongside him as a fellow educator and health administrator. “He brought a lot of resources.”

Viveros recalls his friend’s “penetrating look” when deep in thought. “He would look into your soul. … I would have to stop meetings many times and ask him, ‘Risco, what’s on your mind?’ 

Later in life, Mr. Risco helped those in need as an Episcopal priest.

“He reached one of his goals – ministering to the poor,” Viveros says.

His entire life has always been about helping people.

Ishlatiya Risco-Lambert

Mr. Risco led services at Santa Margarita Episcopal Church before moving to the Bay Area to work alongside his late wife, a correctional officer, as a prison chaplain at San Quentin Prison until her retirement, when the couple moved to Tecate, Mexico. Mr. Risco continued serving as a pastor there until his wife’s health declined and they moved back to Fresno to be closer to their children.

Gloria Hernandez, a friend and fellow activist, recalls Mr. Risco as kind and humble. His legacy, she says, is the reminder to “work harder and make sure we reach out and help others.

“I think his unselfish love for the community is what kept him going.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Eliezer Joaquin Risco Lozada

Born: Aug. 21, 1936

Died: June 15, 2017

Occupation: Activist, health care administrator, professor and pastor

Survivors: Daughters Ishlatiya Risco-Lambert, Tonatzin Risco and Xochi Risco; son Tlacaelel Risco; and several grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews

Memorial service: 5 p.m. Saturday, June 24, American Legion Post 509, 3509 N. First St., Fresno

Remembrances: Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project’s San Joaquin Valley Institute, P.O. Box 161566, Sacramento, CA 95816