WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation’s leading Latino civil rights legal organization, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) honored three distinguished Latino leaders at its 2019 Gala commemorating its 50th anniversary.

MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz delivered remarks during the event 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.

“MALDEF’s great history, partially discussed and evidenced in this gala, provides confidence that MALDEF and its partners can and will successfully combat the Trump administrations’ clear desire to marginalize and exclude Latinos, our nation’s largest minority group,” said Saenz.

Thursday night’s event drew notable government, civic, and community leaders from Washington D.C., and throughout the nation, along with many current and former MALDEF staff members and leaders such as the Hon. Vilma Martinez, U.S. Ambassador to Argentina from 2009 to 2013 and a former MALDEF president and general counsel.

Honorees for the night represent the best of today’s Latino leaders.

MALDEF awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award – Excellence in the Legal Profession to Abelardo I. Perez, a diplomat, attorney and former MALDEF Washington D.C. regional counsel.

“My tenure with MALDEF left a huge impact on my life and this award stirs memories of the intense and rewarding time I had working with my team and other MALDEF staff,” said Perez. “Even as I traveled the world as a diplomat my mind would always, always seek shelter in MALDEF’s history and accomplishments. Congratulations to MALDEF on its first fifty years; Godspeed for its next fifty.”

An Excellence in Community Service Award was given to immigrant rights advocate Maria Gabriela “Gaby” Pacheco, program director for TheDream.US.

“I learned about MALDEF during a college class where we had to research the major laws and rulings that made education possible for all,” said Pacheco. “I didn’t understand when I was an immigrant child that decades before I was even born, someone fought for my education and future. I am here today giving back to my community because MALDEF was there for me first.”

President and CEO of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF), Jose Antonio Tijerino, also received an Excellence in Community Service Award for his work in mobilizing young Latinos in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math, media and business.

“I’m proud to accept the Community Service Award from MALDEF in recognition and reverence of the MALDEF and HHF staff and board, the countless organizations and individuals serving the needs of the most vulnerable in our community, and on behalf of the advocates that tirelessly continue la lucha against hate and injustice,” said Tijerino.  “It’s an even greater privilege to share the stage with my sister Gaby Pacheco and Mr. Perez who are an embodiment of the critical work of MALDEF.  As Americans, we all share a profound responsibility to ‘lift [the] lamp beside the golden door’ as it reads at the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty which has greeted immigrants and refugees for more than a century.”

MALDEF was founded in 1968 in San Antonio, Texas.