LOS ANGELES – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) mourns the passing of Herman Sillas, a noted civil rights attorney and founding board member of MALDEF, who died at the age of 89 in November 2023.
Sillas was not only involved in the initial discussion about the creation of MALDEF but also assisted in identifying supportive attorneys across the Southwest. He served as a board member between MALDEF’s founding in 1968 to 1976.
A graduate of UCLA School of Law, Sillas’ legal career was marked by his tireless work to protect the civil rights of the Latino community, including representing Sal Castro, a social studies teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District who had a pivotal role in organizing the 1968 Chicano student walkouts that took aim at the educational inequalities targeting Mexican American students. Sillas successfully defended Castro following his arrest and ensured charges of conspiracy to disrupt public schools were eventually dismissed.
Sillas served as Director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles from 1975 to 1978. Sillas was also an accomplished artist, and author. Sillas also contributed to MALDEF as an artist, twice providing artwork for the cover of MALDEF’s annual report.
He is survived by his wife, Cora, his five children, 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Please attribute the following statement to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF:
“As a founding board member, Sillas played a critical role in MALDEF’s creation and its initial years of existence. As a Californian, Sillas’s influence continued once MALDEF relocated its headquarters from Texas to California. His contributions to MALDEF, as attorney, founder, and artist are perhaps the most diverse of anyone in the organization’s history. MALDEF sends its heartfelt sympathy to his family and friends.”
Please attribute the following statement to Ambassador Vilma Martinez, president and general counsel of MALDEF from 1973 to 1982:
“Herman Sillas, lawyer, artist and writer, was one of the founders of MALDEF. Throughout his life he worked diligently and effectively to advance our nation’s understanding of Latinos. He was a role model for all of us, and I will always remember his incredible sense of humor and big smile.”
Please attribute the following statement to Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of MALDEF from 1985 to 2004:
“We have lost a pioneer in the Mexican American civil rights movement. Herman was a leader, and as one of the few Mexican American lawyers he paved the way and was instrumental in creating MALDEF, as well as the Mexican American Bar Association. As president of the Western Region of the Civil Rights Commission, he conducted groundbreaking investigations into voting rights violations, farm workers’ rights and migrant abuse. A man of many talents, he was an artist who used his talent to portray the everyday life of Latinos.”