MALDEF in History

Celebrating a History of Women Leaders at MALDEF​​

Ambassador Vilma Martinez (left) Thomas A. Saenz (center) and Antonia Hernández (right).
(Photo taken at MALDEF’s 50th Anniversary Gala in San Antonio, Texas.)

As we near the conclusion of Women’s History Month, MALDEF celebrates its organizational history of women in leadership. For the majority of its existence since 1968, MALDEF has been led by women as president and general counsel. Women’s rights organizations aside, MALDEF may be the only national civil rights organization that can make that claim. We spoke with two of these women leaders, women relied upon by MALDEF through their many years of leadership and all the way up to today. MALDEF’s current president and general counsel, Thomas A. Saenz, has benefitted from both these leaders as professional mentors throughout his legal career.

Vilma Martinez and Antonia Hernández each served as president and general counsel of MALDEF, and helped define the organization’s role as the legal voice for the Latino community. Combined, they led MALDEF for 28 years of its 52-year history, securing landmark rulings and public policy gains that have advanced the rights of all Latinos living in the United States.

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MALDEF’S Landmark Fight for Education Equality in Texas

For years, low-income students in San Antonio were relegated to decrepit schools infested with bats—yes, bats—where tiles fell from classroom ceilings and underpaid teachers fled as soon as they could get hired elsewhere. These schools lacked funding for classes wealthier districts took for granted such, as art and music. Basics such as math and reading in these schools were just that – extremely basic.

The fight to balance Texas’ public-school funding so that kids in poor districts – mostly Latinos – could get a chance at a decent education had been underway for several years when MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and its Senior Litigating Attorney Albert Kauffman joined the battle in 1984.

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MALDEF Successfully Pushed to Expand the Voting Rights Act to Language Minorities

In Uvalde County, Texas, the political atmosphere of 1975 was such that election officials routinely ran out of registration application cards when Latino applicants asked for them. And tough luck for voters who could not read English because election judges refused to assist them.

What occurred in Uvalde County existed all over Texas, said Vilma S. Martinez, then MALDEF president and general counsel. She told a congressional subcommittee that the abuses aimed at keeping Latino voters away from the ballot box were so pervasive, it was impossible to guarantee them a meaningful right to vote through individual private litigation only.

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Proposition 187: The Granddaddy of Anti-Immigrant Measures

State laws attempting to regulate immigration became all the rage in several states across the last decade, but the grandfather of them all was California’s Proposition 187. Voters passed the measure in 1994 after a campaign that bitterly divided residents and was championed by then-Governor Pete Wilson and the state Republican Party.

Very few issues had as profound an impact as Prop. 187 had on California politics and the nation’s immigration policies. But thanks to swift and effective legal challenges, most of the anti-immigrant measure never went into effect.

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MALDEF Lawsuit Created First Latino-Majority Seat on Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors

For years, the white men who always managed to win election to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors were called the “Five Little Kings.” Even as the Latino population continued to grow, the revolving door of white supervisors continued the same as it had since the current county boundaries were drawn in 1885.

It took a voting rights lawsuit by MALDEF and others called Yolanda Garza v. County of Los Angeles and a Supreme Court rebuff to force the board to accept its first Latino-majority district in over a century in a county now with a population greater than 10 million – more than 43 of the 50 states.

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California’s Kern County has used a rigged political system to exploit Latinos for decades. That corrupt system did not skip a beat in 2011 when county supervisors adopted a discriminatory district map, diluting Latino voting strength to prevent them from gaining a second seat on the five-member board.

MALDEF stepped in to create that seat by challenging the new map in 2016 and winning a landmark voting rights victory two years later in Luna v. County of Kern when U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd ruled that the redistricting plan unlawfully denied Latinos the ability to elect candidates of their choice.

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White v. Regester: MALDEF Case Helped Kill Off Mega-Voter Districts that Suppressed the Mexican American Vote

Texas is a big state, and it once used big electoral districts, with multiple elected members, as a big way to suppress the Latino vote.

After the Civil War, Texas used a big bag of voter suppression laws, such as poll taxes and strict voter registration requirements, to suppress Latino voters and shut Mexican Americans out of the Texas House of Representatives. Between 1880 and 1970, one Mexican American was elected in 1890 and four others were elected between 1961 and 1970.

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Plyler v. Doe

Every child deserves a fair chance to learn and thrive. That might seem an obvious statement today, but it took years of legal battles fought by MALDEF to ensure that “every” child did not exclude any child – particularly, immigrant children.

After nearly five years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that all children, regardless of immigration status, have a constitutional right to a free public education from kindergarten to 12th grade. The landmark case, Plyler v. Doe, grew out of a 1977 attempt by the Tyler Independent School District in Texas to oust the children of undocumented workers – farmhands, for the most part – from the school system by imposing tuition of as much as $1,000 per student to attend what were for everyone else free public schools.

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Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund