Remembering The ‘Godfather’ Of A Movement

Mario Obledo, one of the co-founders of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, was known by many as "godfather of the Latino movement" for his longtime fight for civil rights and humanitarian causes. He died late last week. Rosa Rosales, former national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and Antonia Hernandez, a former top MALDEF official, reflect on Obledo’s life and legacy.

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ALLLISON KEYES, Host:

Earlier in the program, we talked about relations between African-Americans and Latinos in New Orleans, but we want to wind up today remembering a civil rights giant who deftly bridged the gap between those communities. A great many Latinos knew him simply as Mario, in the same way African-Americans know Jesse Jackson, Sr. as Jesse.

Mario Obledo was called the godfather of the Latino movement and fought hard against poor treatment of Latin American immigrants all the way back to his return to the U.S. from the Korean War. He co-founded what became known as the law firm of the Latino community, called MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Here's former President Clinton in 1998, honoring Obledo with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

BILL CLINTON: As co-founder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Hispanic Bar Association, as chairman of the Rainbow Coalition, Mario Obledo has expanded opportunity for Americans of every race and ethnic background. Through the force of law and the power of the vote, he has enhanced the character and condition of America.

KEYES: Mario Obledo later headed up several other civil and legal rights organizations, including serving as chair of Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition from 1989 to 1993.

With me from her home near Los Angeles is Antonia Hernandez, a former MALDEF president and general counsel, now the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation. And from San Antonio, where Mario Obledo grew up, we're joined by Rosa Rosales, the immediate past national president of the civil rights group known as LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, which Mr. Obledo also led for a few years.

Welcome, both of you, to the program.

ROSA ROSALES: Thank you.

ANTONIA HERNANDEZ: It's a pleasure to be here.

KEYES: Ms. Rosales, what did Mr. Obledo mean to Latinos in the United States?

ROSALES: Words cannot express what he meant to us. He was a hero. He was always there when there was a need for him to be there to defend the rights of Latinos. I remember him not only when he was president, but when he also continued to serve on the national board of LULAC, and he was always bringing to us, our attention, all the issues that affect Latinos, and he did it with a passion. You knew that he had a great heart. He made a great difference, and he will be an icon for us forever.

KEYES: Ms. Rosales, especially in light of our earlier conversation about relations between blacks and Hispanics in New Orleans, how was it that he was able to bridge the gap between two communities that often have some issues with each other?

ROSALES: Well, that's what was so great about Mario, his ability to communicate, regardless of whether you were black, whether you were Latino. He had this gift to be able to communicate and work together. You know, we all have our commonalities and we all have our differences, but Mario was a person that could work with everyone to ensure the best of everyone came out. And I think that was a gift that very few people have.

KEYES: Ms. Hernandez, he served as Governor Jerry Brown's secretary of health and welfare from 1975 to 1982, when he left to make a run for governor. We want to listen to a clip of him being, well, typically provocative in a telephone interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

MARIO OBLEDO: In five years the Hispanics are going to be the majority population of this state.

Unidentified Man: You also made the statement that California is going to become a Hispanic state and if anyone doesn't like it they should leave. Did you say that?

OBLEDO: I did. They ought to go back to Europe.

KEYES: Ms. Hernandez, clearly he didn't pull many punches when it came to civil rights, did he?

HERNANDEZ: No. Mario was unique in many ways. And one of the interesting things about Mario is that he always spoke his mind, but it was always in a very earnest way. And he spoke to the truth and sometimes in a way that was not as diplomatic as one would hope.

KEYES: I remember back when he was protesting against Taco Bell for the stereotypical Mexican accent of the Chihuahua. How did he do that? Was he a smooth negotiator there?

HERNANDEZ: Well, you know, in that situation like in all situations, his concern was the image of the Latino community. And I had a conversation with him once on this issue and he was very clear that there were very few portrayals of Latinos on television and they were all negative. And his perception was that until we changed society's perception of Latinos that we were going to be hampered in our ability to obtain our equal rights, and Mario was relentless. I met Mario in 1973...

KEYES: Wow.

HERNANDEZ: ...when he was the president of MALDEF and I was a young law student. And what amazed me about Mario is his intelligence and his visionary - and he was a hard worker, I mean relentless worker. And you know, up till his last days, he never wavered from his commitment to civil rights and his commitment for advancing the rights of Latinos, but not exclusively. It was to place Latinos in our rightful place in society among many others. And he served as a guide to Latinos aspiring to serve the community and to serve this country.

Specifically, I think his contributions in bridging, you know, sort of the relationship between communities, specifically the African-American and Latino community, his organizing, you know, through LULAC, of voters, and within MALDEF, the beginning of a litigation under the Voting Rights Act, to really establish our community as the force that it's becoming - Mario seeded a lot of that and what you see now is the fruition of what a lot of what Mario planted; his seeds are growing.

KEYES: Thank you, ladies, both.

Antonia Hernandez is a former MALDEF president and general counsel. That's the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She joined us from her home near Los Angeles. And Rosa Rosales, the past national president of LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, joined us from member station KSTX in San Antonio.

Thank you both for your memories of such a civil rights icon.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much

ROSALES: Thank you.

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