In 1952, Jesse Berain came from his home state of Texas to work in Idaho's onion, potato and beet fields.
The son of a French Basque father and an American Indian mother, he didn't bother arguing the finer points of his heritage with the Magic Valley merchants who hung "No Mexicans Allowed" signs in their hotels and taverns.
Instead, Berain patiently worked to change hearts.
"Jesse has been a fighter for civil rights in Idaho for Latinos all the way since he was in Twin Falls," said Humberto Fuentes, board president of the Hispanic Cultural Center of Idaho in Nampa. "He was always there."
Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Mexican Consulate in Boise, Berain will become the third Idahoan to receive the Ohtli Award in recognition of contributions to the development of the Mexican community living abroad. Established in 1996, the award's two other Idaho recipients are Fuentes and the Rev. Jesus Camacho of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Boise.
"Jesse opened doors and avenues for new generations of Hispanics coming to Idaho," said Camacho. "He has the right personality to reach out to people. He broke barriers by communicating with non-Hispanics."
Berain, a Republican, represented the Boise Bench in the Idaho House from 1992 to 1995, leaving midterm when GOP Gov. Phil Batt named him director of the Office on Aging. Batt and Berain met in 1969, when Berain became the first director of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency created by legislation sponsored by Batt, then an onion grower and packer in Canyon County.
"I thought it was important to begin with somebody that didn't have the reputation for being antagonistic toward anybody," Batt said. "He was just good at getting people to work for him. He was a little bit quiet, but that was all right."
After four years running the commission, Berain spent 17 years with the federal government at the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Bureau of Land Management.
Fuentes, a Democrat who lost a state Senate race, sometimes wished Berain had been more outspoken. But Berain's style got results, including extending workers' compensation insurance and the minimum wage to farmworkers.
"Phil Batt listened to him," said Fuentes. "He was an effective ally."
Brent Olmstead, director of the Milk Producers of Idaho, helped Berain get elected to the Legislature and will speak at the awards ceremony. "Jesse was an activist for workers' causes long before it was a popular thing. He and Gov. Batt had empathy for the less fortunate," Olmstead said.
Berain's legacy also includes pressing Idaho Catholics to hold Mass in Spanish, expanding Head Start, and building the relationship between the Mexican state of Jalisco and Idaho, which led to construction of the Hispanic Cultural Center.
These days, Berain, 84, goes to the center every second Wednesday of the month for lunch with Hispanic seniors, accompanied by his wife, Maria Andrea, his partner in advocacy. In 1993, they were honored with the Bayard Rustin Civil Rights Award by the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment for their work on behalf of Hispanic youth and education.
Jesse and Maria had seven children - one girl and six boys. All six sons served in the military.
For a decade, the Berains made twice-weekly prison visits as part of Alma, a program for Hispanic inmates. About 20 years ago, Jesse was challenged by a prisoner to walk the walk on his pitch for healthy life habits. A smoker since he'd served in the Army in Korea, Berain pulled out the two packs he always carried and put them on the table.
"From this day forward, a cigarette will never touch my mouth," Berain vowed.
"He never smoked another cigarette," recalled Maria Andrea. "Everything he did, he did it from the bottom of his heart."
Dan Popkey: 377-6438