CHICAGO – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) paid tribute in Chicago recently to three leaders who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of those in the Latino community and throughout the country.

“As we celebrate civil rights progress, we also must prepare for a new blow to those rights as the conservative Supreme Court soon issues its decision on affirmative action in university admissions,” said MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz. “Historically, the assault on affirmative action has often focused on the growing Latino community, and we have therefore a special responsibility to lead, following in the steps of our honorees, on our most recent forthcoming challenge – to restore greater equity to higher education admissions.”

The late Honorable Manuel Barbosa was remembered with a Lifetime Achievement Award – Excellence in Legal Service. Barbosa came to the United States from Mexico when he was two months old, and by the age of five he was working in the fields with his family, according to his autobiography. Barbosa became the first Latino U.S. bankruptcy judge to serve in the Northern District of Illinois in 1998. Before becoming a judge, Barbosa served 18 years as chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. He also served on the board of the Northern Illinois University Law School. In Elgin, Illinois where he lived, he founded a scholarship program for college-bound Latino students. He died in November 2019.

“Manuel Barbosa's own experiences as a migrant helped him to become more sensitive to the suffering of others,” said Cristina Moravy, Barbosa’s daughter. “His life's work as a lawyer, judge, and first chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission is complemented and carried on beautifully in the important legal work MALDEF carries out every day.”

María de Los Àngeles Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, received a Lifetime Achievement – Excellence in Community Service Award. Born in Cuba, Torres was six years old when she was sent to the U.S. in the massive airlift known as Operation Pedro Pan. From December 1960 to October 1962, Cuban parents, terrified that the new communist government would ship their children to Soviet work camps, sent their children to America alone to protect them. That experience has informed her career as an author. Torres is the author and co-author of several books about the Cuban diaspora, including The Lost Apple: Operation Pedro Pan, Cuban Children in the US and the Promise of a Better Future in 2004, which includes her personal experience. She also authored 1999’s In the Land of Mirrors: The Politics of Cuban Exiles in the United States. Next year will see the release of her new book, The Elusive Present: Time and Politics in Cuban Thought, which analyzes political discourse in Cuban culture.

“Times are more difficult. We are not in an expansive society claiming inclusion for our communities; we are now facing a movement to eject us from the hard-won spaces we succeeded in obtaining in the last seven decades,” Torres said. “However, I believe we are better positioned to wage a defense. We have a coherent and inclusive agenda shared by community activists, scholars, civil rights organizations and other institutions that demonstrate the growth and maturation of a social movement. MALDEF is a critical component of this, and I am very proud to receive this award.”

Jesse Ruiz, former Deputy Governor for Education for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, was given a Lifetime Achievement – Excellence in Legal Service Award. While in the governor’s office, Ruiz oversaw Illinois’ education system, which included 852 school districts, dozens of community colleges and 12 public universities. From 2004 to 2011, he also served as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education – the first Latino to do so. He is the son of Mexican immigrants and worked his way through college and the University of Chicago Law School, where he studied under future Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and took a class on racism and the law taught by then-professor Barack Obama. Ruiz has served on many nonprofit boards, including MALDEF’s board of directors from 2005 to 2011.

“It is an incredible honor to receive MALDEF’s Lifetime Achievement – Excellence in Legal Service Award,” said Ruiz. “It is truly humbling to be acknowledged by an organization that for 55 years has tirelessly fought for the rights of Latinos, that established the right to a public education for immigrant students in the landmark Supreme Court case of Plyler v. Doe, and whose board I also had the privilege of serving on. I thank everyone at MALDEF and everyone who supports their advocacy on behalf of the Latino community.”

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