San Antonio, TX – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization, on Friday commemorated its 50th anniversary during its 2018 San Antonio Gala, which honored the remarkable work and achievements of four influential leaders in advancing the Latino community.

The annual event took place at the Westin Riverwalk Hotel in San Antonio. MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas A. Saenz delivered remarks highlighting the organization’s history and the current challenges and opportunities Latinos face in the effort to secure greater equality.

“MALDEF’s work today and in the future links directly to our work of the past half century,” Saenz said. “With the most anti-Latino presidential administration in our history currently in office, we draw needed strength from this ongoing commemoration of MALDEF’s 50th anniversary.”

MALDEF was founded in 1968 in San Antonio. Friday’s event drew past leaders of the organization, including Ambassador Vilma Martinez, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina from 2009 to 2013 and MALDEF president and general counsel from 1973 to 1982.

Ambassador Martinez reminded us that at MALDEF’s 20th anniversary in 1988, founder Pete Tijerina said that many of the institutional problems that existed in 1968 remained the same and that MALDEF’s work was as important as ever. “His remarks have a deep resonance as we commemorate our 50th anniversary,” she said.

Antonia Hernández, president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation and MALDEF president and general counsel from 1985 to 2004, was also on hand to mark this important anniversary.

“I am proud to have contributed to the successes that over the last half-century have earned MALDEF its reputation as the Latino legal voice for civil rights in America,” said Hernández. “The four extraordinary leaders we honored on Friday night reflect the values and deep commitment to the Latino community that have been hallmarks of MALDEF’s legacy.”

MALDEF bestowed the Lifetime Achievement, Excellence in Public and Community Service Award on Henry Cisneros, founder and chairman of CityView, chairman of the executive committee for Siebert, Cisneros, Shank & Co., LLC, and former San Antonio mayor and Clinton Administration cabinet official.

“MALDEF grew out of the energy and sense of emergency of the civil rights movement of 50 years ago,” Cisneros said. “The current attacks on due process of law and on the national agenda of fairness and equity compel MALDEF to reaffirm its purpose, amass its resources, and stay the course that has produced so much progress for Latinos and for the nation.”

Texas State Representative Diego Bernal, a former MALDEF staff attorney who now represents District 123 in the San Antonio area, was honored with the Matt Garcia Public Service Award.

Regina Montoya, an attorney and civic leader who is vice-chair of the Board of Directors of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and chair of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Task Force on Poverty, as well as a former MALDEF board chair, was honored with the Valerie Kantor Award for Extraordinary Achievement.

“I have been inspired by the brilliance of the MALDEF attorneys, by their tenacity and their willingness to go anywhere in the U.S. to seek justice and fairness,” said Montoya. “Now you know why I am so moved by this award. It comes from an organization that has impacted millions of Latinos and has changed the course of history.”

Frank Herrera Jr., founder of The Herrera Law Firm and chairman of the board and managing partner of Valiente International Ventures, as well as a former MALDEF board member and chair, was honored with the President and General Counsel Award.

“Today’s political climate clearly illustrates that MALDEF’s legal and political efforts are needed more than ever before,” he said.

The event was chaired by The Coca-Cola Company, and Peter Villegas, Vice President and Head of Latin Affairs for the company delivered remarks during the gala. Sebastian Ontiveros, National Director, Multicultural Business Alliance and Strategy Group, and Senior Manager, Consumer Engagement at Toyota Motor North America, also delivered remarks during the event. Toyota and Walmart also co-chaired the gala.

The gala was preceded, the prior evening, by a panel discussion examining MALDEF’s legacy in the courts, in state legislatures and in the community.