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Johnny Get Your Latino History Book!

Maldef logo
A student walks into class late on a Monday morning smelling like cigarette smoke. The teacher notices him: "Running a little late to day Johnny?"

Johnny: You don't understand. There was this big dog chasing after me. I think it was a Great Dane or something like that. I really thought it was going to eat me. I'm sorry for my tardiness Mr. Swiss.

Mr. Swiss: Yes, I'm sure you are. Now sit down. Ok class today were going to be studying MALDEF, does anybody know what that means?

Other student: Yes I know. It's the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.


Little Sally over heats

Johnny thinks, "Smarty pants."

Mr. Swiss: You are right. Yes it does mean Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. It was founded in 1968. Does anybody know why?

Smart Kid: Yes

Mr Swiss: Anybody else? Anybody?

Johnny: I know why. It was because everybody was really bored back then and they needed something to do.

Parent leadership program, one of the many different programs that MALDEF offers.
Parent leadership program, one of the many different programs that MALDEF offers.

Mr. Swiss: No, no they weren't bored at all. Everybody gather round and I'll tell you why MALDEF was formed. MALDEF wasn't formed for any single reason. It was formed for many different reasons. At that time, Mexican-Americans were going through intense times of segregation and racism. One of the first things that happened was the stealing of many Mexican-American ranches.

Student: How'd they do it? Did they just beat them up and take their ranches?

Mr. Swiss: No, they did it through the government. They used legislative and financial maneuvers to grab the land. For example, in some areas the government placed extremely heavy taxes on the land where Mexican-Americans had ranches and farms. Many Mexican-American farmers could not afford these taxes, and were forced to sell their land. These farms and ranches had been in the family for years, but the families were uneducated and could not protect themselves from the political system. Politicians did nothing to help educate the Mexicans. Instead, took advantage of the Mexican-Americans through their lack of knowledge about the political system. In many towns that had a large Mexican population, the white people that ran the local government either did not understand the needs of the Mexican community, or understood but decided not to do anything about it. The whites continued to control the politics by "managing the Mexican vote," which means not providing bilingual ballots and not counting all of the ballots. All of this corruption led to many Mexicans losing their farms and jobs. Ultimately, they were forced into a life of poverty and distress because they were not treated equally.

Nick with a mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe
Johnny: You talked about education. Did people my age get to go to school?

Mr. Swiss. To a certain extent they did. They were highly discouraged from going to school by the conditions they faced when they got there. First, the kids were segregated and went to schools specifically for Mexicans. These schools had very small classrooms were crowded with a lot of students. The school grounds were poorly kept and had unsanitary conditions. There were also other signs of discouragement, such as schoolteachers being paid almost three times less than white teachers. The segregation and racism was in the schools and the job market as well. Wherever you found a Mexican worker you could guarantee that person was being paid less than the other workers. They were treated poorly in every aspect and this would continue until they stood up for themselves.

Student: What did they do?

Mr. Swiss: Well, different community organizations sprang up all over the southwestern US. There were many meetings to discuss abusive police and politicians. More and more, people were becoming educated about the existing political system and how to combat it.

Johnny: Mr. Swiss can I get a drink of water? Please?

Mr. Swiss: Come right back and don't flirt with the girls in the hallway. OK back to MALDEF. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund was founded in the 19 60's. At a time when people were getting organized and fighting for their rights, whether they were social injustices or political injustices. In 1965 the Civil Rights Act came into effect. The act made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But, in the Southwest this act was largely ignored because no one had ever challenged them to enforce the law.

Nick overjoyed with the success of MALDEF
Nick overjoyed with the success of MALDEF
A man named Pete Tijerina founded MALDEF. He thought that Mexican-Americans needed to attack the law through political means - by raising money and hiring lawyers. Modeling them selves after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, MALDEF was formed. They opened their first office in San Antonio Texas, where the mistreatment of Mexican Americans was astonishing. MALDEF did many things to get the organization off its feet. First they organized a panel to raise money for their newly formed organization. Then they hired some very good lawyers and a researcher to keep the organization in touch with the needs of the community. As more people found out about the Organization, complaints from all over flooded the office ranging from school segregation to police brutality cases. Before they knew it, MALDEF had offices in Los Angles, San Antonio and San Francisco.

Student: What did they do with all these offices?

Mr. Swiss: Hold on I'm getting to that. Armed with lawyers, researchers and community organizers MALDEF began to battle the ills of the Mexican American Community through law and politics. For example, when somebody would call and leave a complaint at one of the MALDEF offices they would investigate it further and analyze the problem. They would usually discover that either there was no law protecting Mexican-American's rights or the ones that were there weren't being enforced. So MALDEF fought to change the laws or change the way they were enforced through many monumental cases and court decisions.

(Johnny comes back in from the bathroom)

Johnny: What were some of those monumental cases? And how did they affect the average "Joe Shmoe" off the street.

regional MALDEF offices
regional MALDEF offices
Mr. Swiss: Well they had many. For example, they sued the State of California for spending three times more money on schools in white areas than in Chicano areas. MALDEF demanded that the money be more equally distributed. One MALDEF's biggest victories involved voting rights. In Texas they battled against legislation that denied that illiterate Mexican-Americans the right to assistance in reading the ballots, and they fought against the law stating that only property owners could vote. They won in these cases, and opened up more opportunities for the average Mexican American. MALDEF also played an important role in electing more Latino's into public office so that the Latino community could be more equally represented.

Overall, MALDEF put Mexican-Americans in a position to make a difference at the political level. Through education, MALDEF positively affected the Mexican-American community and continues to do so to this very day. Even though MALDEF has accomplished many things, there are many things left to do. Here are a couple ways that you can work with MALDEL to make a difference:

The National leadership development program helps educate people to become more involved with their communities and gives them guidance through workshops and training. MALDEF also provides law school and communications scholarships for interested in working in the Latino community. If you want to find out more, go to www.maldef.org. All of their regional offices are and programs are listed there. It is an amazing resource that can be very useful to every single one of you.

The bell rings and the class exits.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - The making of a super man and the uniting of a people
Stephen - A secret clause and the loss of native lands
Nick - It's ours so we're taking it back! Get off of our island!
Stephanie - Si! Hablo English, German, French, Portuguese, Swedish and Greek