SAN JOSE -- With a bold silver streak running through her jet black hair, Esther Medina seemed to draw a line she carried with her wherever she went -- then challenged others to pick a side. She beguiled politicians with the force of her will but rarely deigned to go to City Hall.
"Esther truly was one of a kind," said Angel Rios Jr., Medina's right-hand man for 13 years as MACSA's associate director. "She was driven by this combination of love for her culture and the pain of growing up in poverty and seeing firsthand the inequities that existed. The focus of her life was leveling the playing field and championing the cause of the disenfranchised."
On Wednesday, Medina, lioness of San Jose's Latino community for more than two decades as leader of the influential Mexican American Community Services Agency (MACSA), died following a brief illness. She was 76.
A wide swath
In 1982, when she took over as executive director of MACSA, the agency was on the brink of financial ruin. When she retired 22 years later, it was providing low-income housing for seniors, running youth and adult day care centers, and had an annual operating budget of $7 million.
"Her status here is legendary," said MACSA's current executive director, Michael Lopez. "She took over this agency when it was operating out of an old Victorian and built three housing developments, a family resource center, and turned it into the agency it would eventually become."
Inside and outside the politically boisterous Latino community, Medina cut a wide swath. Some detractors felt that as she consolidated power, she sometimes sold out politically unpopular causes to curry favor with government grant writers. "She had a strong presence," Lopez said. "You definitely knew when Esther was in the room."
Though Medina was known for the flashy clothes and jewelry she wore, friends said her eccentric style choices sometimes caused people to trivialize and frequently underestimate her.
"Esther was just a force," said Cynthia Bojorquez, who was mentored by Medina, and is now the recreation director for the city of Campbell. "No one in this valley who is a leader was not touched in some way by Esther. You cannot think about the Hispanic community here and not think about the infrastructure she left behind."
A single mother during most of her reign at MACSA, Medina oversaw the construction of major housing projects, and bumped heads on the City Council when she felt it was necessary. "Esther made it possible," said Bojorquez. "She was not antagonistic, but she got her way through force. She was a woman who was a leader at a time when that didn't happen in our community."
Medina suffered from diabetes, and by 2006 was in dire need of a kidney transplant to prolong her life. When word of her condition got out, she received offers of assistance -- some including an organ -- from total strangers who had been touched by her service to the community.
Driven by passion
The youngest of seven children, Medina was born in a migrant farm workers camp in California and said she began picking fruit when she was 5. The family finally settled in one of San Jose's most prosperous neighborhoods, but she later reminded friends she grew up on "the wrong side of the street" in Willow Glen, among the valley's prune and berry pickers.
After graduating from San Jose High, she learned to style hair and opened several businesses. But she later said making enough money to buy a newer and bigger car every year left her feeling empty. So she sold her beauty salon in the '70s to become a social worker. She got her wish, toiling longer hours for much lower pay.
Rios, who started at MACSA as an unpaid volunteer, planned to attend law school, until Medina persuaded him to give the agency one year. When he finally left 13 years later, he had no doubt what had kept him at MACSA. "Esther had a capacity to engage you in a way that made you feel, 'This is where I want to be.' She was driven by her passion for making people's lives better. And she did that."
Funeral arrangements were pending, according to the family.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004; follow him at Twitter.com/BruceNewmanTwit.