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Antonia Hernández: Leading with the Law

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

When Antonia Hernández speaks about anti-immigrant waves periodically shaking up the United States of America, she has her own family's experience as background. This life experience helped shaped her path as an attorney, civil rights leader and philanthropist.

"This is a country of immigrants; we all came from someplace. But we've had these awful anti-immigrant periods. Against the Germans, the Italians, the Chinese, the braceros,” she says. “In my opinion, it is the fear of the changing demographics. It's the browning of America.”

Hernández was born in 1948 in Coahuila, México and was raised on a small communal ranch called El Cambio. Her father, Manuel, was born in the United States, but along with his parents, was deported to Mexico in the 1930s during the Mexican Repatriation period.

At the time of the Great Depression, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were blamed for exacerbating the country's economic woes and easily targeted as mestizos. It is estimated that between 400,000 to 2 million were deported, many of them birthright citizens like Antonia's father.

When she was eight, in 1956, the Hernández family moved to the United States and settled at the Maravilla Projects in East Los Angeles. To make ends meet, the family often spent summers in the San Joaquin Valley picking crops. Antonia, the eldest of the children, also helped sell her mother's homemade tamales in the neighborhood.

 After graduating from Garfield High, she did well in school and went to UCLA on several scholarships to get a B.A. in History, with the plan to become a teacher.  But she soon realized that the change she wanted to help achieve needed the intervention of the courts. So, she ended up going to UCLA Law School, where she earned her J.D. in 1974. She passed her bar exam and became a United States citizen as well.

As a young woman, Hernández participated in marches and public demonstrations, including the Chicano Moratorium. Her dad used to drive her to these events.

After graduation, Hernández went to work for the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice and the Legal Aid Foundation. Later, she was staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the first Latina to hold that position.

In 1981, she went to work for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 1985, she became President and General Counsel.

That's where she was when Proposition 187 came about in 1994. It was a small organization at the time, with a national budget of 7 million dollars. The organization also did not take government funds. She could not pay her staff attorneys much, and what she most admires to this day is the sacrifice and dedication of many of the best legal minds, mostly Latino but not all, who had worked in the MALDEF staff through the years.

As MALDEF approached the lawsuit against 187, Hernández went to the Mexican “Asociaciones,” community groups that represent migrants from different parts of Mexico to raise extra money for the litigation.

“I remember going to these groups and telling them we needed money to fight this battle. And they would say: “Señora, no se preocupe" (Lady, don't worry). And they would have their tamaleras and their dances, and they would turn over their earnings to us. 

“In the end, it was about coming together,” she remembers this as a lonely moment for civil rights organizations and groups that were facing the state of California's lawyers in court to dismantle a law that had just been passed by an overwhelming majority of voters.

“In many ways, this was the turning point for the Latino community as far as realizing that we had to defend ourselves and that we had to do it alone,” Hernández recalls, 25 years later.

To litigate the issue, MALDEF partnered with the ACLU and with a private law firm. But the pressure was always on her organization, as the representative of the Latino community, the one group that was especially targeted by the initiative.

After all these years, and having moved from law to philanthropy — she left MALDEF in 2004 to become the president and CEO of the California Community Foundation— Hernández is still bitter about then-governor Pete Wilson, who pushed the proposition to enable his reelection. 

Nonetheless, she believes that the proposition had a good, unintended consequence that has helped the state and the community.

“It took fear to activate our community. I actually had a speech at the time that thanked Pete Wilson for scaring the bejesus out of my community,” she says. “He was the reason why we rose up and took control of our destiny.”

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187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

The fight against Prop 187 awakened Latino political power, dramatically changing California politics.
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