WASHINGTON, D.C. –  Last Thursday, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) paid tribute in Washington D.C. to three leaders who have dedicated their careers to promoting the progress of the Latino community.

“In these dangerous times, we are grateful for leaders like our honorees, each of whom has broken many barriers to the full integration of Latinos in U.S. leadership,” said MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz.  “In contrast to too many irresponsible elected officials, our honorees recognize that the increasing Latino population is not an ‘invasion,’ but an infusion — of heart, intellect, and commitment in support of the health and vitality of the United States.”

The Honorable Catherine Cortez Masto, the U.S. Senator representing Nevada, received the Excellence in Government Service Award. In 2016, U.S. Senator Cortez Masto became the first woman from Nevada and the first Latina to be elected to the senate. She is a co-sponsor of the Dream Act of 2021 and a fierce defender of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. Prior to her election, Cortez Masto served as the Attorney General for Nevada, where she pushed to break up sex trafficking rings throughout the state. She also helped to pass a law making sex trafficking a state crime. She also created a program to protect Nevada’s senior citizens from exploitation, abuse and identity theft.

“I’m honored to accept MALDEF’s Excellence in Government Service Award this year,” said Senator Cortez Masto. “As the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, I’m grateful for the work MALDEF does protecting the civil rights of our Latino community, and I will continue fighting to ensure that all our families can live their lives with dignity and fulfill their dreams.”

MALDEF presented the Lifetime Achievement – Excellence in Community Service Award to Arturo Rodriguez, President Emeritus, United Farm Workers (UFW). The award honors his decades of dedication to the well-being and fair treatment of all farmworkers. Before retiring in 2018 as President of UFW, Rodriguez worked to lift farmworkers’ pay above minimum wage in California’s largest agriculture regions. During his tenure, the UFW sponsored a California law  that granted overtime to field workers, and the union negotiated contracts that improved the pay for laborers in three states. For 23 years, Rodriguez has worked with national growers’ associations and lawmakers to push for legislation that would allow immigrant farm workers to earn legal status. The bi-partisan Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 and 2021.

“I am deeply honored and humbled to be recognized by MALDEF and know that I have stood on the shoulders of giants and Farmworkers throughout my career,” Rodriguez said. “I cannot think of a time when Farmworkers have asked for Tom Saenz’s or MALDEF’s support – whether it be a letter of support, a legislative campaign, or a march- in which MALDEF has not stepped up to support. Together we will continue to confront the challenges confronting Farmworkers and Latinos across America.”

Director of the U.S. Census Bureau, Robert Santos, was given the Excellence in Community Service Award. Santos, who became Census Director in 2022, is the first Latino to lead the bureau. Santos has publicly said it is imperative that there are policies and regulations in place to ensure public trust in the Census. His career as a statistician spans 40 years, including serving as vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute. Santos has led top research organizations, including the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, and the American Statistical Association (ASA), where he served as president.

“It is a great honor to stand here and receive this award on community service,” Santos said. “Over my professional career, I have learned that diversity, innovation, creativity and critical thinking are central to maintaining excellence in any field of work. As a native Texan of Mexican descent, I am proud of my roots and how they’ve shaped me.”

The event was emceed by Telemundo 44 anchor Stephanie Ochoa.

MALDEF recognizes the significant contributions of these outstanding leaders and their dedication to advancing civil rights for all. The event drew notable government and community leaders from around the nation.