He was born Jose Maria Sanchez on June 2, 1933 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but most people knew him as Joe.
Longtime businessman and community activist Joe Sanchez passed away Tuesday, May 10 at his home in Los Feliz, California following a long illness. He was 77.
Sanchez was a grocer, community activist, and first Latino Los Angeles Fire Department commissioner. He is currently featured in the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes inaugural exhibit LA Starts Here!
“We help the community, we help ourselves,” Sanchez says in the video recorded earlier this year.
The son of Jose Maria Sanchez and Ana Maria Montoya Sanchez, he was one of 8 children. The Montoya Sanchez family, originally from Spain, has deep roots in New Mexico, going back to the 1,600s.
In search of work, Joe’s father moved his family from Belen, New Mexico to Los Angeles following the outbreak of World War II. Joe was just eight years old.
Like his brothers and sisters, Joe learned the value of work early. He would often recall his jobs shining shoes and selling newspapers, starting at age 9. Like many of his generation, he would turn over part of his wages to his mother to help support the family, and it wasn’t until years later when he married, that he would find out his mother had saved much of that money for his future.
As a teenager, he worked at Weber and Sons, a local discount grocery store in the Wall Street/Olympic area of Los Angeles. That job would be the start of his career in the wholesale grocery business, which would one day expand to include a number of discount retail grocery outlets, including the La Quebradita grocery stores in East Los Angeles and Pico Rivera, co-owned with his sister and brother-in-law Dolores and Cal Soto, La Marketa in Stanton, and Civic Center Sales, originally located in Chinatown and later moved to Lincoln Heights.
Joe graduated from Jefferson High School. He did not attend college, but would often say his higher education was from “the school of hard knocks.” Lack of a college education did not keep him from being an astute businessman, or from serving on numerous civic and industry boards. He was a member of the Southern California Grocer’s Association and founded the Mexican American Grocer’s Association in 1977.
But while Sanchez was a successful businessman, his true passion was the pursuit of social justice for Mexican Americans and Chicanos, as well as other groups. For more than five decades he used his businesses as a catalyst for social change, to help fund the social justice and political causes he cared most about, from fighting discrimination in hiring and job promotion, to education to the anti-war movement, to the election of Mexican Americans to political office, and the opportunity for Mexican Americans to own businesses. He would support efforts to achieve immigration reform and to give the vote to Mexicans living in the U.S. in elections in Mexico, in hope that would lead to reforms in that country.
He supported the Chicano Moratoriums, and anti-war movement and was an avid supporter of the United Farm Workers, collecting truckloads of food for striking farm workers during the UFW’s prolonged grape and lettuce boycotts. Cesar Chavez and his family often stayed in the Sanchez home when he was in Los Angeles.
“During the most challenging and turbulent times of the farm worker movement, beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s, no one in the Latino community did more and could be counted on with greater consistency than Joe Sanchez. He was often the first person in the Chicano community to whom Cesar would turn when the farm workers needed help,” said Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, reacting to the news of Sanchez’s passing.
Sanchez would host numerous fundraisers in his home for a myriad of Chicano causes and for aspiring politicians, including then LA City Councilmember and State Assembly member Antonio Villaraigosa, Gov. Jerry Brown, and others.
In 1973, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to serve as a member of the Board of Fire Commissioners. He was elected to serve as President Pro Tem of the commission from 1973-76, and as Vice President from 1977-78, during which he pushed the LA Fire Department to stop discriminatory hiring practices against Mexican Americans, African Americans and Asians.
“His was the first voice on the Fire Commission that spoke boldly, no matter the consequences, for access, equity and fair treatment for all of the men and women in the Los Angeles Fire Service,” said Genethia Hudley-Hayes, president of the Los Angeles Board of Fire Commissioners.
“Joe Sanchez is an icon,” said Councilmember Ed P. Reyes.
In August 2010, Reyes paid tribute to Sanchez with a bronze plaque at Fire Station No.1 in Lincoln Heights. “He was one of the original defenders of our neighborhoods and an inspiring role model of public service. He struggled on behalf of others and fought vehemently against injustices so that future generations could prosper. I will miss Joe Sanchez. His legacy and passion still lives,” Reyes told EGP on Tuesday.
Sanchez was present for the ceremony and surrounded by family members, friends and admirers.
“I’m very grateful, … and I’m glad to see so many of the Hispanic community getting involved,” said Sanchez, after the plaque unveiling. “We’ve done well, but we can do better and the battle is not over yet,” he said following the ceremony.
The plaque states that as a commissioner, Sanchez distinguished himself through his commitment to the goals of the Consent Decree, a 1974 court-ordered mandate that required the department to hire minorities, “thus reinforcing the principles of social and equal justice through the employment of all people regardless of race, color, creed or national origin.”
“This city would not have paramedics if Joe Sanchez hadn’t stood up that day and challenged them to do it. We have some of the best and brightest paramedics today,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina during the August ceremony.
Reacting to news of his passing, Molina told EGP on Tuesday that from his earliest years, Sanchez fought tirelessly for Latino and minority equality.
“His participation in numerous civil rights and business organizations attests to this fact. Joe never hesitated to help the vulnerable and disenfranchised. His heart was always with the underdog. Joe actively supported both local and statewide elected officials he believed in—even when their causes were unpopular. I mourn Joe’s loss but I also celebrate his legacy… Joe touched many lives, and he will be missed,” Molina said.
“More than anything, Joe Sanchez wanted all Angelenos, regardless of skin color, or social or economic status, to have access to the many golden opportunities our great City has to offer,” said Councilmember José Huizar. “His was a life well-led and Los Angeles will forever be in his debt.”
During the August ceremony, Huizar reflected on how Sanchez’s struggles impacted his own opportunities in life. “Joe, I was only… a little boy, running around the streets of Boyle Heights as an immigrant who came to this country from Mexico,” Huizar said. “But it was people like you who made it possible for families like mine to have a future in this country—muchisimas gracias Joe.”
Upon hearing of Sanchez’s death, Councilmember Tom LaBonge (CD-4), who represents Los Feliz where Sanchez resided, called EGP personally to say “God Bless Joe Sanchez.”
“Joe Sanchez was great man, a pioneer,” he changed the course of the Los Angeles Fire Department for the better and greatly expanded the number of Latino firefighters, he said.
“Sanchez was an angel in the City of Angeles and now he is with the angels. We were so fortunate to have him, he was an inspiration to many and a fighter for all,” LaBonge said.
During the 1980s, Sanchez was the first person to publicly and financially support a discrimination lawsuit brought by a group of FBI officers who claimed they had been denied promotions because they were Hispanic. He was able to gather support in a community long wary of the agency for the controversial lawsuit, which the agents eventually won.
Longtime friend and former Bradley appointee Alberto Juarez, in a moving Facebook tribute to Sanchez, recounted how he recently spent time talking to Sanchez about his life: “As Joe went over his greatest accomplishments, he spoke not so much of the movement or business success but that of his family, his wife, children, and the host of grandchildren and great grandchildren, whom he hoped would build on his legacy of public service and love of Los Angeles. Personally, his greatest gift to me was his friendship. … Rather than lament the passing of a friend, I celebrate his life…”
Read this article in SPANISH: Él Uso Todos Sus Recursos para Luchar por la Justicia 
Sanchez is survived by his wife, Laura Balverde Sanchez; sister and brother-in-law Dolores and Cal Soto, brothers and sisters-in-law Nicolas and Lila Sanchez, Alfred and Laura Sanchez, Alex and Teresa Sanchez and his five children and their spouses; Gloria (Sanchez) Alvarez, EGP’s managing editor and Mike Alvarez; Joe and Carla Sanchez; Michael and Christine Sanchez; Sarah (Sanchez) and Jon Ramos; Erica (Sanchez) and Jeremy Hinthorne, and 24 grandchildren and several great grandchildren.
A Rosary and funeral Mass will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, May 16 at Our Mother of Good Counsel Church in Los Feliz. The burial will follow immediately at Resurrection Cemetery in Montebello. A Memorial Celebration will follow at LA Plaza in downtown Los Angeles (adjacent to Olvea Street).
The family has asked that in lieu flowers, donations be made to LA Plaza in Joe Sanchez’s name. Donations can be mailed to LA Plaza at 501 N. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012.