LOS ANGELES – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization, marked its 50th anniversary last night at its 2018 Los Angeles Gala, which featured honors to four award recipients for their lasting and positive contributions to Latinos and all Americans.

MALDEF was founded in 1968 in San Antonio, Texas, and has scheduled commemorative events in cities nationwide for the coming year. Last night, MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas A. Saenz delivered remarks reminding attendees of MALDEF’s crucial role in supporting and defending Latino rights over the last half-century and looking forward to the challenges and opportunities Latinos will face in the years to come.

“We come to the current political fight over immigrant and Latino inclusion with 50 years of legal acumen, 50 years of courage, and 50 years of heart,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “With the strength of a half century of experience, we know that we will prevail, as began with Tuesday’s ‘brown wave’ election, in getting our nation back on track with its shared constitutional principles and aspirations.”

The event was held two days after the 2018 elections, in which Latino voters from California to New York ensured their voices were heard at the ballot box, with one in four Latinos who voted on Tuesday self-identifying as first-time midterm voters, according to published reports.

Last night’s event drew notable government, civic, and community leaders from Los Angeles and throughout the nation, along with many current and former MALDEF staff members and leaders. Among them were two of the evening’s award recipients – Ambassador Vilma Martinez, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina from 2009 to 2013 and MALDEF president and general counsel from 1973 to 1982; and Antonia Hernández, president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation and MALDEF president and general counsel from 1985 to 2004. Both were honored with MALDEF’s President and General Counsel Award.

Ambassador Martinez has a long history in civil rights and government service going back more than 50 years. Under her leadership, MALDEF filed Plyler v. Doe, the landmark lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guarantees every child access to a free public education regardless of immigration status. She was the first woman to represent the United States in Argentina as Ambassador, and was until earlier this year president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners.

Previously, she was a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson, where she specialized in federal and state court commercial litigation, advising companies on steps to enhance their equal employment opportunity policies and build diversity and inclusion initiatives into their business plans.

Enriching Ambassador Martinez’s experience is a history of continued public service on numerous boards. She served as chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of California from 1984 to 1986, and was a regent from 1976 to 1990. She previously served as a board member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She chaired the Pacific Council’s Study Group on Mexico and served on the advisory boards of Columbia Law School and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California.

“When I first thought about 50 years of life for MALDEF, part of me was disappointed because I had hoped MALDEF’s work would be finished, complete,” she said. “On reflection, however, I have come to understand that breathing life into our nation’s ideals and goals is work that never ends. So, on this, MALDEF’s 50th anniversary, I reflect with shared pride in our past accomplishments and with confidence that MALDEF’s work is in the best of hands.”

Antonia Hernández holds the distinction of being the longest-serving president and general counsel in MALDEF history. Before joining MALDEF as Regional Counsel in Washington in 1981, she was a staff attorney with the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice and then worked as counsel to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Under her leadership, MALDEF enjoyed many victories, including defeating California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 and securing a Latino-majority board of supervisors seat in Los Angeles County.

Hernández is nationally recognized for her commitment to underserved communities in Los Angeles and beyond. She serves on various commissions, advisory boards, committees and panels, including the Pacific Council for International Policy, and is a member of the boards of directors of the American Constitution Society, the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the national American Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California. She serves on the Commission on Presidential Debates, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, the JFK Library Foundation Profile in Courage Award Committee and the UCLA School of Law Board of Advisors.

“Today’s struggle is tomorrow’s history,” she said. “MALDEF may be 50 years old, but the defining role as the ‘legal voice of the Latino community’ is vital to the future of our communities at this critical moment in America. So much of the freedom and opportunity we enjoy is directly attributable to the dedication and commitment of MALDEF attorneys and advocates who stood up and fought to uphold our civil rights. It’s an honor to have played a role in MALDEF’s incredible work and to support them in creating an empowered, inclusive and just future for all Americans.”

MALDEF also honored two of the nation’s leading Latino artists at the event. Photographer George Rodriguez, who has chronicled the Latino experience for decades and has long been renowned as a top celebrity photographer, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement, Leadership in the Arts Award.

A native Angeleno, Rodriguez has documented on film historic events including the East Los Angeles student walkouts of 1968, the 1970 anti-war demonstration known as the Chicano Moratorium, and the United Farm Workers Movement, among others. Through his work in the television, recording, and film industries, he has photographed stars including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, Michael Jackson, and Jim Morrison, to name just a few. A retrospective of his work, Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez, edited by scholar, writer, and curator Josh Kun, was published this year.

“I feel it a great honor to be recognized by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund,” he said. “I'm very proud and grateful and hope our association goes on for years.”

Actress, comedian, producer, and writer Cristela Alonzo, received the Leadership in the Arts Award. Alonzo made history in 2014 when she became the first Latina to create, produce, and star in her own network sitcom, “Cristela,” for ABC, and again in 2017 when she became the first Latina lead in a Disney Pixar film, voicing the role of Cruz Ramirez in “Cars 3.” Her stand-up special, “Lower Classy,” is currently featured on Netflix.

“MALDEF celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has become a staple in the Latino community for half a century because of its goal to fight for the rights of all my Latino brothers and sisters to ensure they are seen as people with hearts and souls,” Alonzo said. “Their work in making our community's humanity visible is what makes MALDEF an absolutely vital organization, and I am not only honored but grateful to be acknowledged by them.”

The event at the JW Marriott Los Angeles also included remarks from MALDEF board chairman Raul Lomeli-Azoubel; Kevin de León, President pro Tempore Emeritus of the California State Senate; Cástulo de la Rocha, President and CEO of AltaMed Health Services Corporation; and Sebastian Ontiveros, National Director, Multicultural Business Alliance and Strategy Group, and Senior Manager, Consumer Engagement at Toyota Motor North America. Father Gregory Boyle, founder and director of Homeboy Industries, delivered the invocation.

The event was co-chaired by SEIU United Healthcare Workers West. Toyota, Southwest Airlines and The Sidley Austin Foundation were national sponsors of the gala.