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Fighting for Workers and Civil Rights

Hispanics have played a significant role in fighting for and securing access and equity in working conditions and education. We've highlighted just a few people, organizations and events that have helped improve all of our lives.

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31, 1927. During the Great Depression, his family was forced to give up their farm, and at only 10 years old, Chavez became a migrant farmer. He attended 38 different schools before quitting at the end of eighth grade to support his family full time.

In the late 1940s, Chavez was introduced to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings of nonviolence and was inspired to use Gandhi’s techniques to improve the lives of migrant farmers in the United States. Chavez joined the Community Service Organization (CSO), a group dedicated to helping immigrants gain citizenship and voting rights, and quickly developed as a leader and an organizer; it was not long before Chavez was made president of the CSO.

In 1962, Chavez left the CSO to start his own organization called the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). He spent three years recruiting members and in 1965 joined a mostly Filipino union called the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in a strike against the Delano, Calif. grape growers for better wages. With Chavez’s leadership, the NFWA and the AWOC merged to form what would eventually become the United Farm Workers (UFW), AFL-CIO. Insisting on the use of nonviolent techniques during the strike, Chavez fasted for 25 days in 1968 to inspire and rededicate his members. In the process, Chavez gained the support of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and was propelled onto the national political scene. Finally, after five long years of struggle, the Delano grape growers were forced to sign contracts with the union, a historic victory in the U.S. labor movement.

The UFW went on to fight and win many more labor battles. According to a nationwide Louis Harris poll, during the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez and the UFW inspired as many as 17 million Americans to boycott grapes. By the early 1980s, thanks to a number of election victories and successful contract negotiations, the UFW had grown to protect nearly 45,000 members. Chavez broadened his union’s cause by turning attention toward the use of pesticides and its effect on the health of both farm workers and the public consuming the produce. His selfless dedication to noble causes, even at the expense of his own health, has served as an inspiration not only to Hispanic Americans but also to people everywhere. On April 23, 1993, at the age of 66, Chavez died in his sleep near his birthplace in Yuma, Ariz. One year later, President Clinton posthumously awarded Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of our nation’s highest honors.

United Farm Workers
This site includes a thorough history, speeches and photos of the UFW and its leaders including Cesar Chavez.

The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Struggle
This site provides biographical timeline, quotes and more on Cesar Chavez and his efforts to improve conditions for farmworkers.  

Jaime Escalante

Born in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1930, Jaime Escalante became one of the most famous educators in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s and the subject of the Academy Award nominated film, Stand and Deliver.

Searching for a better life, Escalante moved to the United States in the 1960s. He worked a plethora of jobs, learned English, got a college degree, and in 1974 got his first job as an American teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. His situation was not an easy one; he needed to teach mathematics to students in a high school running rampant with drugs and violence. Convinced that his "un-teachable" students would rise to the expectations demanded of them, Escalante began an advanced mathematics program with a group of students. His students, rising to their potential, passed the difficult Advanced Placement Calculus test and proved their many doubters wrong.

After some of the students' test scores were invalidated and deemed to be the result of cheating, Escalante protested, citing bigotry and racism as the cause of such accusations. His students retook the exam, and they all passed once again, thus disproving the accusations of cheating. This saga was the influence for both a book, Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, and a film, Stand and Deliver.

Escalante has received several awards for his contributions to the field of education, including the Presidential Medal for Excellence. He was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1999.

Hernandez v. Texas

Hernandez v. Texas was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. The focus of the case was whether Hernandez, a migrant worker who was convicted of murder in a small Texas town, received a fair trial given the systematic exclusion of persons of Mexican origin from jury duty. Gustavo Garcia, a Mexican civil rights lawyer, represented Hernandez and argued that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed protection not only on the basis of "race" but also "class." The State insisted, however, that the Fourteenth Amendment only covered blacks and whites, and that the absence of persons of Mexican origin from jury duty was a coincidence, not a pattern of discrimination. Garcia presented evidence that showed Mexican Americans treated as a separate class in society. The Supreme Court recognized "class distinctions" between "white" and "Hispanics" and found that different treatment on such a basis violates equal protection laws. Hernandez’s conviction was overturned.

Hernandez v. Texas
Read the U.S. Supreme Court opinion.

The American GI Forum

Approximately 500,000 Latinos served in World War II for the United States. Upon their return, many were greeted with less respect than that given to other veterans. In the years following WWII, Army Major and physician Dr. Hector P. Garcia watched as the Naval Station at Corpus Christi refused to treat sick veterans who were Latino. Unable to stand for such blatant discrimination any longer, the young doctor founded the American GI Forum in 1948, the country’s first Latino veterans’ advocacy group.

Garcia’s organization received national attention when the remains of Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American soldier killed three years earlier while on a mission in the Pacific, were returned to his relatives in Three Rivers, Texas, for final burial. The only funeral parlor in his hometown would not allow Longoria’s family to hold services for Longoria because of his Mexican heritage. Longoria’s widow approached the Forum for help, and soon the incident became subject of outrage across the country. Ultimately, with the help of the Forum and the sponsorship of U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, Longoria was put to rest in Arlington Cemetery.

Quickly expanding its mission and opening chapters across the U.S., the American GI Forum went on to provide a number of services for Latino veterans, making sure they received the educational, medical, housing and other benefits promised in the GI Bill of Rights. The organization has been active both in the courtroom and in promoting voter registration. Garcia remained a visible and vocal leader and was appointed ambassador to the U.N. during Johnson's term as president and was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Regan in 1984. He died in 1996 at the age of 82. The Forum continues its work today, providing financial support, job training and counseling for veterans of Hispanic heritage.

Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector B. Garcia Story
This website highlights the PBS-produced program Justice for My People. The site includes a comprehensive biography, audio and video clips by and about Dr. Garcia, speeches and a photo gallery.  

U.S. Latinos and Latinas and World War II
Organized by the University of Texas at Austin Department of Journalism, this site provides first-person accounts by Latinos of their experiences during World War II.

Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF)  

Started in Texas in 1968, MALDEF has advocated and fought for Latino civil rights in the workplace and community at large. By 1973, MALDEF had established itself in a Supreme Court victory (White et al. v. Regester, et al.), forcing Texas into compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Under the leadership of Vilma Martinez in the 1970s, MALDEF developed a more sophisticated fundraising endeavor and set up the Chicana Rights Project to challenge sex-discrimination against Mexican-American women. MALDEF also joined the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, filing more than 80 lawsuits between 1974 and 1984 to combat voter inequalities.

Highlights of MALDEF’s Advocacy Efforts

  • Equitable funding of schools as argued in Edgewood v. Kirby and Rodriguez v. L.A. Unified School District.
  • Eliminating discrimination in employment hiring and promotion was highlighted in Alaniz v. Tillie Lewis Foods, Ballasteros v. Lucky, and Urquidez v. General Telephone.
  • Fighting for voting rights by urging Congress to include Latinos in the 1965 renewal of the Voting Rights Act.

The official website for MALDEF includes a variety of reports and research addressing civil rights cases and issues involving people of Hispanic heritage.

Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws
Maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice, this site describes the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its renewals, including the 1975 renewal that added protections for language-minority citizens.

League of United Latin American Citizens

LULAC advances the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of Hispanic Americans through community-based programs operating at more than 700 LULAC councils nationwide. The organization involves and serves all Hispanic nationality groups.

LULAC councils provide more than a million dollars in scholarships to Hispanic students each year, conduct citizenship and voter registration drives, develop low income housing units, conduct youth leadership training programs, and seek to empower the Hispanic community at the local, state and national level. LULAC's educational arm, their National Educational Service Centers, provide counseling services to more than 18,000 Hispanic students per year.