Occupation: Civil rights activist
Source: Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale. 1996.
As president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a Latino civil rights organization, Antonia Hernández has become a highly visible advocate for the nation's large and growing Latino community. Her opinions and advice on how a given issue will affect U.S. Hispanics/Latinos have often been featured in newspaper editorial pages, national magazines, television talk shows, and numerous other media outlets. Immigrant rights, employment discrimination, educational inequities, U.S. Census figures, redistricting, voting and language rights, are among her regular topics of concern.
Hernández began working for MALDEF in 1981 as a staff attorney in its Washington, D.C., office. Two years later she became employment litigation director in the Los Angeles office. During those years she sought greater opportunities for Hispanics in federal employment and promoted affirmative action in private and public sector jobs. It was also a period when MALDEF initiated several lawsuits to get employers to compensate bilingual workers whose second language capabilities were part of their job. In 1985, Hernández became president and general counsel of MALDEF, succeeding Joaquin Avila. "Every person who heads [MALDEF] gives it his or her flavor," Hernández told Hispanic. "My flavor has been taking the helm of an organization and helping it into institutional maturity."
Her tenure with MALDEF has been marked by controversy. In 1987, an executive committee of the MALDEF Board of Directors abruptly terminated her, citing questionable administrative and leadership abilities. Hours later they appointed former New Mexico Governor Toney Anaya to the post and gave him a $100,000 salary—$40,000 more than Hernández had been making. But Hernández refused to be dismissed, maintaining that only the full board had the power to fire her. A state judge from Texas agreed, requiring that the full board determine her status. They voted 18 to 14 to retain her.
Since then, she has gone on to become an organizational mainstay and MALDEF's most visible spokesperson. A public interest lawyer since graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Law School in 1974, her advocacy is informed by her personal experiences of growing up as an immigrant in East Los Angeles, California. For example, her experiences as a child learning English by the "sink or swim" method has made her an effective advocate of bilingual education . "I made it. But just because I made it cannot be used as an example that it works," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal. "I say "Don't look at me, look at all those who didn't make it.' Because you're not judged by whether you made it, whether the minority made it. You're judged by whether the majority makes it." Because of her work, she told Hispanic, her children "will have the opportunities I had to fight for. As a consequence, they'll have a bigger responsibility to give to their community."
Born on May 30, 1948, in the Mexican state of Coahuila in the town of Torreón, Hernández came to the United States with her family when she was eight. They settled in Los Angeles. Her father, Manuel, was a gardener and laborer. Her mother, Nicolasa Hernández, was a homemaker raising her six children but she also took on odd jobs whenever possible. As the oldest child, Antonia was often called upon to help raise her younger siblings and to do unconventional tasks for young women of that time period such as car maintenance. "In my time, women didn't have the freedom that women have today," her mother told Parents, "but I wanted my daughters to have that, to learn, to travel, to work, to do whatever they wanted to do." While the Hernández family was not rich in material possessions, they provided a nurturing environment, says the younger Hernández. "I grew up in a very happy environment but a very poor environment," she told Parents.
Hernández credits her early upbringing in Mexico as instilling pride in her Mexican roots. "When I came to the United States, I was very proud of who I was. I was a Mexican. I had an identity. I had been taught a history, a culture of centuries of rich civilization so I had none of the psychoses of people who don't know who they are," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Her belief in the extended family can be seen in her daily life. She, her husband, and their three children now live in Pasadena, near her mother and her sisters.
All of her brothers and sisters have earned college degrees and several are teachers. "My parents instilled in us the belief that serving the public interest was a very noble thing to do," Hernández told Parents. Hernández was on her way toward earning a postgraduate degree in education when she decided she could be more useful to her community with a law degree. She had already received her bachelor's degree and a teaching certificate from the UCLA in 1971. She was working in a counseling program, she told Parents, when she "realized that we couldn't help the kids or teachers unless we did something about the laws that were holding them back."
Although her professors encouraged her to attend Harvard or Stanford, she chose UCLA so she could remain near her family. "I was the oldest in our family, and my parents were sacrificing everything they could to help me with school," she explained to Parents. "They were looking forward to me graduating and working as a teacher so I could help them with the rest of the kids. So my feeling was that if I were to ask them to sacrifice three more years, moving away would be too drastic."
Although not a straight-A student in law school, her professors recall her as bright and articulate. "She had the ability to get her point across without alienating other people and people respected her for that," recalled one professor in the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Hernández acknowledges her priority wasn't top grades but the organizations and issues she cared about. During law school, she served on the admissions committee and several Chicano student organizations. "I wasn't out there to make the law firm roster," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal. "I knew I was going to be [in] public interest [law].... To me, to be a really good lawyer, you have to be a well-rounded person."
After receiving her juris doctorate, she became an attorney for the East Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, where she handled criminal and civil cases, often involving police brutality. After a year there, she became directing attorney of the Lincoln Heights office for the Legal Aid Foundation, where she directed a staff of six attorneys and took part in case litigation and fought for bills in the state legislature.
By then she had already married Michael Stern, an attorney she met while a law clerk for California Legal Rural Assistance in 1973. Two years later Stern came to Los Angeles as the deputy public defender in the federal Public Defender's Office. An old friendship turned to courtship and they were married in 1977. Stern practices with a private law firm.
In 1978, Hernández was offered a job as staff counsel to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, which was chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy. After initially declining, Hernández took the position, with a little prodding from her husband. "I was very happy doing poverty law and being near my family," Hernández told Parents. "They called me back because they thought it was the salary, and so they raised it. I didn't want to explain what the problem was so I said yes. As a professional woman you just don't say "My mother said I shouldn't do this.'" Her husband took a more pragmatic view, telling Parents: "We didn't have children; we had very little furniture and few responsibilities. I figured I'd get a job."
Overcoming her reluctance to leave her hometown, Hernández gained valuable experience in the nation's capital. At the Senate Judiciary Committee, she drafted bills and briefed committee members, specializing in immigration and human-rights work. She even took a brief leave of absence to coordinate Kennedy's Southwest campaign during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. "In that degree I played the Hispanic role," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal. "But on other issues, I was just another staff member who had to do the work that had to be done."
Soon after the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1980, Hernández was out of work. Within days, MALDEF asked her to join their Washington, D.C., staff. Her progress at MALDEF was steady, working as associate counsel, director of the employment litigation program, executive vice president, and deputy general counsel before moving into the top slot. One of her brightest moments was her role in defeating the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which would have required Latinos to carry identification cards. Immigrant rights has been one area that Hernández has been especially effective in pushing the federal government to recognize. Throughout her tenure at MALDEF, the organization has created historic changes through court litigation for the U.S. Hispanic community, including the creation of single member election districts and favorable public school equity court decisions in Texas, and successful challenges to district boundaries in Los Angeles County.
Certainly Hernández has had her critics. In 1998, Linda Chavez, who headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan Administration and is herself of Hispanic ancestry, told the Los Angeles Times that she felt Hernández had "been a forceful advocate for her point of view, and she's certainly done a good job promoting MALDEF's agenda." But, Chavez added, "I think MALDEF's agenda has been bad for Hispanics." Chavez went on to say that MALDEF is "irrelevant" for middle-class Mexican Americans because it dilutes Latino political power by gerrymandering middle-class Hispanics out of their regular voting districts.
Hernández says her time in Washington, D.C. has given her a broader understanding of the diversity within the U.S. Latino community. "Living on the East Coast has helped me transcend the regional aspect of the organization by mixing with Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other groups," she told Hispanic. She has sought to increase the cooperation among civil rights organizations across racial and ethnic lines. "If we allow ourselves to be sucked into believing we should fight over crumbs, we will." Her resolve on that issue was tested in late 1990 when the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights failed to support the repeal of employer sanctions found in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Citing the government's own General Accounting Office study showing that the provisions led to increased discrimination against Hispanic-looking job applicants, Hernández threatened to pull MALDEF out of the coalition, which was gearing up for an intense lobbying campaign for what would later become the 1992 Civil Rights bill. In the end, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) voted to support the repeal.
As much as her performance is measured by court decisions, she understands the human element of her work. "A court victory is important but just the beginning of the process. It must translate into empowerment . It is the people that have the power to give life to those court victories," she told La Paloma. However, despite her professional success, she acknowledges that the 1980s were not the best of times for the U.S. Hispanic community. "The 1980s was not the decade of the Hispanic," she told Hispanic. "Madison Avenue put up the expectation and said we failed. The 1990s is a threshold decade. We need to move. Otherwise, we'll develop into a community with a small middle class and a large poverty class."
Speaking as an advocate of bilingual education in 1998, Hernández told the Los Angeles Times , "I strongly believe it is important to find a way of transitioning students from their native language to English... This country has an immigration policy but they don't have an immigrant policy. To me, bilingual education is a method of teaching kids that integrates them into the American mainstream. It is a process. I firmly believe I am much more valuable because I speak two languages." But according to immigrant-rights activist Alice Callaghan, who has worked alongside Hernández on other causes, the poor families she (Callaghan) has worked with view bilingual education as a deterrent to their children's success and an academic failure. "None of the MALDEF lawyers had their children in bilingual education," Callaghan told the Los Angeles Times.
Antonia says family comes first despite her high-powered job. She describes her children as "my greatest accomplishment." Balancing the needs of her family with a career has been a continual struggle, but one she has become adept at. She's often gone from home for long stretches of time, testifying before Congress or addressing other national organizations. "I try to balance my life and it has worked," she told Hispanic. "But I have little time to myself and very few good friends." She acknowledges that having a husband who was familiar with her culture through his work with farmworkers and able to speak Spanish has helped. Although of Jewish descent, Stern has embraced his wife's strong cultural ties. "I don't want him to feel uncomfortable because he's living our way," Hernández told Parents. "But he's very accommodating. I don't know if I could be as accommodating if it was the reverse."
By 1998, Hernández had an annual salary of $135,000, and she could no longer be considered poor by any stretch of the imagination. When asked how she managed to stay in touch with the needs of poor and marginalized Latinos, she acknowledged the problem in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I was dirt poor... . I worked in the fields. I lived in the projects... . But now I'm as middle class as they come," she began. But by remaining close to her parents and their ties to the Latino community, she feels she is able to stay in touch with her roots.
Her community involvement has included serving on the boards of California Tomorrow, Quality Education for Minorities Network, California Leadership, Latino Museum of History, Art, and Culture, and Los Angeles 2000. And, after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Hernández began recruiting others into community service. Appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to the Rebuild L.A. commission to spearhead revitalization efforts in the beleaguered city, Hernández has been adamant in calling for immigrants and Latinos to be involved in the rebuilding process.
In 1996, Hernández received the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award, which was created by the association to recognize professional achievement by minority lawyers. The motto of the award is "Ad Astra per Aspera," which translates as "To the Stars Through Difficulty."