News Column

A Fight For Rights

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MALDEF's case work also has opened political opportunities to Hispanics, whether by forcing authorities to redraw political boundaries to ensure equity for Hispanic voters or by revising at-large voting systems that essentially had kept Hispanics from holding office. Its work has helped Hispanics gain seats on school, city, and county boards, and helped lead to the election of such leaders as Gloria Molina of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio.

But removing legal obstacles hasn't always led to instant empowerment, and the group's work has slowly grown to encompass elements of education. MALDEF's Washington, D.C, regional office has been a voice in current policy debates of the day, and is the group's only regional office that does not directly engage in litigation because it is focused on influencing public policy.

"We try to work with both sides of the aisle to educate and shape what is needed for Latinos," says Jim Ferg-Cadima, the office's interim regional counsel. "And we try to fight what might be harmful for discrete populations of Latinos. The nature of the work is very challenging. Every policy debate needs a Latino voice. And when the threats arise, we have to respond."

Ms. Tallman, born and raised in Iowa and the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, now is hoping to increase MALDEF's presence and voice on a variety of fronts, including geographically and programmatically. So far in her first several months at the helm, Ms. Tallman has visited each of the group's five regional counsel offices – in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Atlanta – and met with financial and other supporters. As the group assesses where new laws may most be needed, she says the next office could likely be in the Pacific Northwest, and the issues of educational access and equity will become a priority, even as the group continues its work in voting, immigrant, and employment rights.

"These kids are our future labor market. They will support our Social Security system and make our economy viable. We need to make sure they get a quality education and are not pushed into poor learning environments," says Ms. Tallman. Ms. Tallman also notes that MALDEF's leadership programs and scholarships have created a broad group of alumni "that expands our reach so it is much broader and deeper," she says. "We need to cultivate that further."

Rufina Hernández, an attorney for the National Education Association and director of the association's human and civil rights department, received a MALDEF scholarship to attend law school. "As a Latina, and a community member and NEA employee, I have extreme pride that we have a strong relationship with MALDEF," she says. "Without MALDEF some of these landmark cases would not have been won. You need someone of their caliber to bring this litigation forward."

Says Congressman Becerra, "I don't think they will ever abandon the protection of civil rights because there is always someone willing to erode those rights. But [MALDEF] has matured and grown enough that it need not exclusively concentrate on those precepts of life. Now it can help us establish more of a presence in Corporate America."

For Ms. Tallman, who is aware of the demands on the organization, the challenge will be balancing both goals and staying focused on the group's mission of fostering sound public policies, laws, and programs to safeguard the civil rights of U.S. Hispanics. "Latinos have made a lot of progress because of MALDEF in the last 35 years, but there's still a lot to be done," says Ms. Tallman. "We take seriously our obligations. We'll continue to fight those fights important to the community and make friends along the way. There's a huge amount of goodwill towards MALDEF, and we intend to use it."

Jonathan J. Higuera is a business writer at The Arizona Republic.

1966: Pete Tijerina decides to take to court the case of a Hispanic woman who lost part of her leg in an accident. He rethinks the decision when he learns the Texas jury contains no one with a Spanish surname.

1967: Mr. Tijerina describes to the Ford Foundation the need for a Mexican-American civil rights organization.

1968: The Ford Foundation announces it will give the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund a founding grant of $2.2 million to be spent over five years on civil-rights legal work for Mexican Americans.

1971-72: MALDEF opens offices in Washington, D.C., Denver, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

1973: Vilma Martinez becomes MALDEF's president and general counsel. The organization's headquarters moves from San Antonio to San Francisco, and MALDEF begins to work with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to represent Title VII employment-discrimination clients.

1974: MALDEF launches the Chicana Rights Project with funding from the Ford Foundation.

1976: MALDEF launches the Community Education and Activation Project to raise awareness of its work.

1979: MALDEF marshals the resources of several of its offices to promote an accurate count of U.S. Hispanics in the 1980 census.

1982: MALDEF advocates for an extension of the Voting Rights Act and defends the educational rights of children of undocumented immigrants.

Mid-1980s: MALDEF shares victory in a court case that leads to redistricting of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.

1990: MALDEF works to ensure that U.S. Hispanics are counted accurately in the 1990 Census.

1994-98: MALDEF and other civil-rights organizations successfully stop enforcement of Proposition 187, a California voter initiative that would have denied education, social services, and health care to the state's undocumented immigrants.

2004:Ann Marie Tallman, the granddaughter of Mexican migrant workers, becomes president and general counsel of MALDEF.


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