A Tale of Two Cities

Two Latino civil rights organizations that have blazed trails in our community are a study in contrasts. One works below the radar, litigating knotty issues like employer discrimination and bilingual education. The other lobbies Congress and adds Hollywood glamor to legal work with celebrity board members. Yet both are trying to achieve the same result: equality under the law for Latinos.

LatinoJustice PRLDEF was formerly known as PRLDEF, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. One of its significant achievements was successfully suing the city of New York in the 1970s for the right of limited-English students to receive bilingual education, which was subsequently expanded to include some bilingual Federal and state documents.

MALDEF, or the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, is headquartered in Los Angeles but has regional offices in Chicago, San Antonio, Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Founded in 1968 and often described as the “law firm of the Latino community,” its early triumphs include suing to do away with at-large voting in county, city and school board districts in Texas. MALDEF successfully argued that the law weakened the voting power of communities of color.

While it continues to work on various issues across the country, MALDEF has a firm foothold in the nation’s capital, represented by the Raben Group, the high profile lobbying firm headed by Robert Raben, former counsel to Congressman Barney Frank and  Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton Administration. Does insider status mean an advocacy group forgets where it came from and why it’s there, or becomes afraid to criticize the establishment?

Not a chance, says MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas Sáenz. “I’m not really concerned or worried about that because the historical record says otherwise,” Sáenz tells LATINO. “We have a strong presence in Washington to work toward a legislative fix, to present a legal perspective on behalf of the Latino community for a number of issues, such as immigration reform, voting rights, and education.” Sáenz says MALDEF is certainly not afraid to criticize the president and policymakers when the organization feels it needs to. Since 2007, MALDEF has sponsored the annual Latino State of the Union, where community leaders gather to discuss key issues of concern. At this year’s gathering in New York, hosted by Time Warner in their glitzy offices high above Columbus Circle, Sáenz minced no words in expressing frustration over  the lack of movement on comprehensive immigration reform.

“No one in the Latino community can be faulted for some amount of disappointment. Here we are after the triumph of the presidential election when pundits nationwide recognized the critical and decisive role that Latinos played in the outcome and we had reason to believe there would be swifter action in immigration reform, but it seems too many of our political leaders have selective political amnesia,” he said. “How quickly they forget the impact of the Latino vote in 2012. How quickly they forget that this community will hold them accountable for their failure to act in response to our votes and our opinions.”

Sáenz went on to suggest that the solution to this “amnesia” would be for Latino voters to “administer a booster shot” in the midterm elections this November. These criticisms reflect what political observers say is a growing frustration with the current political climate in Washington where not much seems to get done. NCLR President Janet Murguía caused some commotion when she recently labeled President Obama “Deporter-in-Chief” for his record number of deportations, rapidly approaching 2 million, a grim milestone. Sáenz said that Murguía’s comments are “accurate” because Obama has deported more Latinos than all previous presidents combined, despite his recent claim that he “has our back.”

Like other nonprofits, MALDEF has a board of directors, but one of its members is none other than Eva Longoria. MALDEF board members are nominated and elected to three terms of two years each, and Longoria has been serving for four years. “The board of directors represents the broad range of our community,” and Longoria is a valuable asset, explained Sáenz. The lovely Hollywood actress is one of 35 members, including professors, elected officials, and community activists. Also on the board are executives from companies like Chase, Walmart, Anheuser Busch and Coca-Cola. But by virtue of her celebrity, she often participates in MALDEF events. In 2014, the organization will put on elegant award galas in Washington, DC, Chicago, San Antonio and Los Angeles. That doesn’t mean they’ve “gone Hollywood,” Sáenz says, adding that they continue to work aggressively on the issues that impact the Latino community.

But MALDEF came under criticism last year by the social media group Latino Rebels for promoting Longoria’s television show “Devious Maids,” which was panned by many as stereotypical. Sáenz rejects that notion, saying “it’s important to have greater diversity in all areas of the media, from news to fictional characters.”

Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela tells LATINO that’s perfectly fine, but “I wouldn’t have a problem if there were 20-30 different kinds of programs showcasing Latinos, but our opportunities in mainstream media are so rare that a show such as that one perpetuates stereotypes. Entertainment shapes perception. Do we have to settle? Do we really have to support everything even if it’s mediocre?” Varela adds that these types of conversations need to happen more often in the community.“We have to have more honest, real conversations, more internal critics. No one will take us seriously if we don’t speak out. We can’t be afraid to talk about this. We have more in common than not.”

On the other hand, LatinoJustice PRLDEF is perfectly fine staying largely out of the spotlight, says Deputy Chief Counsel José Pérez. “We work with MALDEF and others and we say you don’t need us on the ground [in Washington] because you’re there. Historically we’ve been based here in New York City,” Pérez says, adding with a chuckle, “We don’t need more chefs to cook the soup.” Pérez notes that LatinoJustice PRLDEF influences the policy debate through litigation, calling themselves “the community’s lawyers.” “We’re doing more and more nationwide work, in Florida, in Alabama, Pennsylvania,” Pérez adds, and any expansion of the organization’s work or even opening a regional office would mean going to where the need is, and that’s not necessarily inside the beltway.  LatinoJustice PRLDEF is in fact expanding this year, opening an office in Orlando.

 “We’re fighting against anti-immigrant backlash, employment discrimination, many issues, and we’ll go to where we can help,” says Perez.

Last year, LatinoJustice PRLDEF successfully sued to require that federal law enforcement agencies establish new policies and regulations regarding immigration raids on private homes. The organization’s moniker of “community lawyers” extends to its 26-member board, with more than half comprised of lawyers. But it also includes corporate bigshots such as Cid Wilson of Cabrera Capital Markets, and Indrani Franchini, Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer at Hess, who serves as Chair.

MALDEF was recently involved in a lawsuit in Westminster, California, arguing successfully that three Latino police officers were denied promotions and special assignments in retaliation for their complaints of discrimination. The lawsuit contended that Latino officers were usually assigned to patrol a local mall even though they had each at least a decade of experience on the force. MALDEF helped them obtain a $3.5 million award. “Exposing unlawful and discriminatory actions within law enforcement is never easy,” said Sáenz.

MALDEF is also challenging anti-immigrant housing ordinances in several cities across the country and in working on voting rights, and greater focus on education, among other issues. “We want to have the policymakers refocus on closing the achievement gap [between Latinos and other students],” adds Sáenz.

In addition to its litigation work, LatinoJustice PRLDEF is well known for its programs to help bring more Latino students into the legal field, from its own LSAT preparation program, to mentoring and internships. The group’s education division is unique among other civil rights organizations. “I would call it our crowning achievement,” says Pérez, who himself participated and points out that current President and General Counsel Juan Cartagena was once an intern there. “We are opening doors for students to the legal field. Our education division gives the students a road map of sorts; how do you survive, how to get internships and mentorships.” PRLDEF gave us a home. Deputy mayors, judges, partners in law firms; many have benefited.”

They were one of the first, adds Pérez, to sponsor a Law Day to connect students and law schools, an event the group first organized 31 years ago and which continues to grow. Last year’s Law Day, for instance, attracted more than 100 law schools and 350 prospective students. The LSAT preparation program is going into its 26th year.

Rosa Cabrera is Director of Private/Public Sector Recruitment and Outreach in the Career Development Office at the University of Maryland Law School.  “I benefited from the LSAT prep program. It was very affordable,  significantly lower that what other programs cost,” said Cabrera, who attended Rutgers Law School and went into law school administration several years ago, but not before stepping back into LatinoJustice PRLDEF to work in fundraising. Cabrera was also instrumental in co-founding another LatinoJustice PRLDEF program, LAWbound, that seeks to increase the number of Latinos in the legal field by offering outreach and recruitment, mentoring and internships, and it’s done by starting the process early on while students are still in college.

“LatinoJustice PRLDEF has had a major impact for me. It opened up my mind to many issues and broadened my horizon, and I wanted to pay it forward. I had the mentors, I had the internships, and I wanted others to have that,” says Cabrera.

PRLDEF added “LatinoJustice” to its name in 2008 to reflect New York City’s changing demographics among its Latino population and put to rest any perception that the organization only helps Puerto Ricans, who represented 63% of the city’s Latino residents when PRLDEF was founded in 1972. But currently Dominicans, Mexicans and Central Americans are a fast-growing share. “We have always worked on behalf of all Latinos,” says Pérez.

Sáenz says MALDEF’s name is an issue they too have thought about, but there are no plans to change. “It is a historically important name,” said Sáenz, adding that the group is making a conscious effort to focus on a greater use of its initials as its brand. “Much like the NAACP. Everyone knows them as the NAACP and not the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.”

All Latino organizations, whether in New York, Los Angeles, or around the country, walk the same tightrope between advocating for their community and raising the funds required to pursue such advocacy. In Washington, DC, access to power is necessary to get things done, but it can come with a price. In the end, what’s most important are results, the legal victories achieved by MALDEF and LatinoJustice PRLDEF on behalf of Latinos.

 But Roberto Lovato, co-founder of firebrand organization Presente.org, fears “big money” has made some Latino groups less aggressive than before.  “I can remember back when Latino organizations had to raise money any way they could, and now you see a big corporate presence everywhere.,” he charges. “Corporate funding has created a new form of vendido. Money is tighter than it’s ever been and more political than ever before. It used to be that the contribution was made for a good cause and that’s it. But now if you say anything they don’t like, the money disappears, so too many groups say nothing. The corporations contribute in order to further their own corporate interests. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.”

By Patricia Guadalupe