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MALDEF: Defending Mexican-American Rights For 50 Years

Joey Palacios
Texas Public Radio
From left to right, MALDEF President Thomas Saenz, former MALDEF President Vilma Martinez, former MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel Albert Kauffman, Vice President of Litigation Nina Perales speak at a panel about MALDEF's history

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is celebrating its 50th birthday.

MALDEF will mark its 50th anniversary Friday with a gala in downtown San Antonio.

The legal defense agency began in San Antonio in 1968 and was headquartered in the Alamo City before moving its main offices to California in the 1970s. However, it has always maintained an office here.

Vilma Martinez was the third president of MALDEF from 1973 to 1982. At a panel Thursday night, she said MALDEF was created to “fight institutionalized racism and discrimination.”

​“Mexican-Americans were being denied educational opportunities; denied employment — the right to vote; very much second-class citizens in our country,” she said.

One of MALDEF’s most prominent cases is Plyler versus Doe. The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision struck down a Texas law that barred state money from being spent on undocumented students in public education. Now, all children attend public school for free regardless of citizenship status.

“We won it at the district court, we won it at the court of appeals, and we won it at the U.S. Supreme Court, 5-4,” Martinez said, “and so that’s been a very important case. California, seeing what was happening in Texas, decided to go ahead and educate undocumented children.”

MALDEF also fought on behalf of San Antonio’s Edgewood Independent School District in a landmark school funding case styled Edgewood ISD versus Kirby. It argued that Texas’ system of using property taxes of funding school districts created an unequal imbalance in funding.

“One of the issues in Edgewood was that the poor districts were always known as Mexican-American districts. In the views of people in Texas in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the poor districts were Edgewood, and El Paso, and the Valley districts and I do think that was one of the reasons that the system was continued for as long as it was,” said Albert Kauffman, former MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel, who worked on the case. “Because they felt that those folks just don’t deserve all this new money and we’re not going to fund them.”

The 1989 decision by the Texas Supreme Court found the funding system unconstitutional. The legislature was then required to alter its funding model. What surfaced was a method known as “Robin Hood” where richer school districts would give money to poorer districts.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, says the work continues. “Today, we’re challenging SB4 here in Texas. Today we are defending DACA. In the past we have challenged Prop 187 in California, SB 1070 in Arizona, its ongoing work even today to defend the rights of Latino immigrants,” he said.

Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules