Antonia Hernandez: The Leading Latina Legal Eagle for Civil Rights

Article excerpt

Back in 1956, as eight-year old Antonia Hernandez was preparing to move from Torreon, Mexico to Los Angeles, little did she realize that four decades later she would be leading one of the nation's preeminent civil rights organizations.

Since 1985, Antonia Hernandez has been in the vanguard, as President and General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). As its CEO and chief lawyer, she leads MALDEF's efforts to protect the legal rights of the Nation's 29 million Latinos, the minority group that is expected to soon become the Nation's largest minority group. Working from her Los Angeles headquarters and five regional offices, with a budget of $5 million dollars and a staff of 75, (including 22 lawyers), Hernandez and the members of her organization serve as a national watchdog, litigating and promoting the civil rights and other issues of special concern to the Latino community. Her organization works in close cooperation with other civil rights groups whenever their interests intersect, as well as with other organizations that work for the common good.

Hernandez's commitment to social justice comes from her parents, particularly her father who was one of many American-born Latinos corralled and arbitrarily deported to Mexico during a wave of anti-Mexican immigrant hysteria in the 1930s. Hernandez's awareness was further heightened when her family lived in an East Los Angeles public housing complex during her coming-of-age years, and while working as a summer migrant worker in 105 degree temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley. By the mid-1960s she was an integral part of the Chicano civil rights movement.

Ms. Hernandez received her B.A. from UCLA in 1970 and completed her law degree from UCLA School of Law in 1974. She worked for a number of non-profit organizations after graduation, including the Legal Aid Corporation, before being recruited in 1979 as a staff member for the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

She has been married for twenty years to Michael Stern, a civil rights attorney whom she met while they were both staffers with California Rural Legal Assistance, a group that worked closely with Ceasar Chavez' UFW (United Farm Workers Union) in addressing the needs of migrant farm workers. They have three children and make Los Angeles their home.

CRJ: Tell us a little about what it was like when you were growing up in California?

The housing projects then were very different from the projects today. It was a working class, poor community with intact family units, but there were `gang bangers' around. I liked books, so I was their little nerd and I was protected. I don't want to glamorize it, because I saw people getting killed in front of my eyes, for no reason whatsoever. Overall, though, we concentrated on family and church and school. We took care of each other.

CRJ: What was the experience of being the first Latina working on the US Senate Judiciary Committee?

I had to compete with the best and the brightest to get and keep that job. It was in the late 1970s, and it was a phenomenal, fascinating experience for a Latina to be able to go to Washington and actually be part of a historic Senate institution. I was in the belly of power and worked with a group of bright, dynamic people who are today at the center of influence, in and out of Washington.

CRJ: What are MALDEF's major priorities?

Actually we're up to our noses addressing a welter of familiar civil rights issues that won't go away anytime soon.

We've just finished working on issues of higher education, naturalization, affirmative action in the Federal government, the English-only initiative, judicial nominations and appointments, minimum wage, and welfare reform. Whether it's at the State or Federal level, government has not been in a very positive, proactive mode. But the pendulum is always swinging, and my staff is always on full alert, fighting the good fight day in and day out, anticipating the swings of the pendulum and taking full advantage when it swings back in our direction. …