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“To Have Our Own Lawyers Fight Our Own Cases”: The Origins of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund

In the following interview, Pete Tijerina, the first executive director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), discussed the origins of the organization. A trial lawyer with experience handling discrimination cases and encouraging organized political participation among Mexican Americans, Tijerina had been a State Civil Rights Chairman for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), an organization he joined in 1946. Because his efforts with LULAC were limited by funding and the demand for aid to individuals in localized cases, Tijerina and others realized the need for broad legal precedents to successfully erase widespread discriminatory practices and implement social and economic changes. MALDEF, with a $2.2 million grant in 1968 from the Ford Foundation (including $250,000 for the education of Mexican American lawyers), was set up initially in five southwestern states. It was patterned after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), formed in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall to pursue initiatives in the courts to gain opportunities long denied to African Americans. MALDEF successfully argued in court for inclusion of Mexican Americans on Texas juries, integration of schools, bilingual and bicultural educational programs, equal opportunity in employment, and amendments to the Voting Rights Act.

Listen to Audio:

TIJERINA: I guess it was [19]64 or ‘60—late ’64 or early '65 I was retained by the Muñoz family from Charlotte, Texas, who had been involved in an automobile accident. As a result of that accident, Mrs. Muñoz’s right leg was amputated. So I filed suit in Atascosa County—the County seat is in Jourdanton, Texas. I took the case, prepared, and did all my pretrial work. I reported for trial and they showed me a copy of the jury list. There were no Mexicanos on the jury. So I went and complained to Judge Roberts and he told me: “You know, I don’t discriminate, I’m fair. I’ll reset the case for August the first, [19]66.” So, August the first, I reported back for trial, they gave me a copy of the jury list. They had two Mexicanos—one had been dead for ten years, and the other one didn’t speak a word of Spanish. So as a result, I had no choice but to settle the case for a third of its actual worth. I was really very upset.

I had received correspondence from Jack Greenberg and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund inviting me to their meetings. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had received considerable amounts of money from foundations because of their victory in the Brown v. State Board of Education. They invited me and I never went. So finally after the Muñoz case, they sent me $500 to go to a conference in Chicago—a conference of civil rights lawyers. And, again they were going to prepare us with briefs, memorandums of law, sample complaints, how to file suits. And I sent Matt Garcia.

Matt Garcia was later a state representative from San Antonio, from Bexar County. And Matt went in my place and he came back, and I said, “Give me a report.” And he says, “They have money, plenty of money.” So I called Jack Greenberg and he suggested, he says, “well, what we can do is that I can come to San Antonio with a staff of our civil rights lawyers, and we can try the cases for the Mexican-American community. We will fight the cases for them, the civil rights cases.” So I said “Well, why don’t we organize a Mexican American Legal Defense Fund?” And he said “Well that’s a very good idea.” He said “Let me talk to some people at the Ford Foundation and call you back.” It was important to the movement and to the cause and to the Mexican-American community to have our own lawyers fight our own cases.

INTERVIEWER( Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez): “Why?”

TIJERINA: I felt they were more closely related, they were very close to the problems. They knew more about the problems than anybody else. And these were people from New York that were coming down here. They wouldn’t have the expertise I think in Mexican-American socio-economic and cultural problems.

Source: Oral History courtesy of U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas, Austin. Interview with Pete Tijerina, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, December 2, 2000, in San Antonio, Texas, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and Maro Robbins.