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Latina activist discusses strategies to fight discrimination

Civil rights leader Vilma Martinez told an audience of students and faculty on April 24 that discrimination is a recurring problem that must be addressed on a continual basis.

In her speech, "Lessons from MALDEF: New Strategies for Old Struggles," Martinez discussed some of the key legal battles that she helped wage during her nine-year tenure as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

Martinez was selected to deliver the 13th annual Ernesto Galarza Commemorative Lecture, sponsored by the Stanford Center for Chicano Research, because of her contributions to the Latino community.

Martinez was 29 years old when she assumed the top post at MALDEF in 1973. "Getting that job wasn't easy," said Martinez, who lobbied hard for the post, despite the warnings of co-workers and friends who told her that the time wasn't right for a woman to head the organization. Lawyer friends outside the organization argued that Martinez would be wasting her time because President Richard Nixon had packed the courts with conservative judges unsympathetic to MALDEF's cause.

But Martinez did not scare easily.

"The opportunity to help build MALDEF, then a fledgling civil rights organization which had started with a foundation grant, into a nationally significant Latino institution was very important to me in large part because of my own experiences with discrimination in my home state of Texas," she said.

As a young girl, Martinez excelled in school and had always assumed she was going to attend the academic high school in town. So, it took her by surprise when a junior high school counselor told her that she was forwarding her records to the vocational high school where she would feel "more comfortable." Martinez, however, insisted that the counselor forward her transcript to the academic high school because that was where she was planning to enroll in the fall.

Throughout her life, Martinez has continued to battle stereotypes. When she was preparing to attend college, her high school counselor refused to take the time to explain how the application process worked. When she decided on a legal career, her college counselors tried to dissuade her, saying that law school was very difficult. And when she applied for her first job after graduating from Columbia Law School, interviewers at several firms in Texas told her that many of their clients would not feel comfortable having a woman or a Mexican represent them.

"At a personal level, the lessons I have learned are to persevere and dedicate yourself," Martinez said. "Do what you care about, even when your friends counsel you otherwise and victory seems unattainable."

Although Martinez has seen many gains in the Mexican American struggle for social justice during her lifetime, she continues to be driven by the belief that discrimination must continue to be opposed on several fronts.

Litigation is one way of fighting against discrimination, Martinez said. Some of MALDEF's key legal victories during her tenure there included a case against the Uvalde and El Paso school boards that ended the segregation of Latino students and a case against the U.S. border patrol that struck down a height and weight requirement for employment that tended to exclude Latinos.

MALDEF's legislative advocacy efforts resulted in expanding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to cover Mexican Americans and in delaying the institution of sanctions against employers who hired illegal aliens. When the sanctions ultimately passed, MALDEF's strategy shifted to lawsuits to lessen the discriminatory impacts and to public policy studies to document that employer sanctions didn't curtail the flow of labor to the United States but increased discrimination against foreign-looking Americans.

Community education and outreach was another important component of MALDEF's strategy to fight discrimination, Martinez said. Many Latinos, for example, were afraid to participate in the census. So MALDEF, working in conjunction with the Roman Catholic Church, started a campaign to tell people that if the census bureau didn't come to them, they should go to the bureau.

At the time, Martinez served on several boards, including the University of California Board of Regents, which she chaired from 1984 to 1986. "I kept getting asked to serve on various boards," she said. "At first, I was very honored. But then I finally got the message that it wasn't [just about] me. They needed input from people from our community."

Under Martinez's direction, MALDEF formed a leadership program for young Latinos and also hired a public relations firm to make sure Latino voices were represented in the newspapers that public policy makers read.

"Discrimination in many forms and against many groups has not yet disappeared," said Martinez, a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson since 1982. She specializes in federal and state court litigation, including defense of wrongful termination and employment litigation.

"You should oppose it," she said. "I encourage you to develop ideas or strategies of your own to fight it. If I could write a poem, a play or a movie script I would. But those are not my talents."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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