By: Maria Sandoval, Julia Victor, and Claudia Cabrera
“What I truly want is for every person to have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potential.”
Antonia Hernandez is an important figure and considered a hero in the Latino community. As an attorney with a focus in civil rights and immigration, Hernandez has made a significant impact in the Latino community in the United States.
Antonia Hernandez was born in 1948 in Coahuila, Mexico. She was the oldest of seven children born to Manuel and Nicolasa Hernandez. Being raised on a small communal ranch called El Cambio, meaning “the change”, may have been an indication of her future influence. In the June of 1956 the Hernandez family immigrated to the United States and settled at the Maravilla Projects in East Los Angeles, California. This is where Hernandez experienced firsthand the poverty and inequality within Latino communities and the housing projects. She contributed to her family’s income by pulling crops across California alongside her parents during the summer as well as worked in a produce market and sold tamales on the weekends. Antonia graduated from Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and attended East Los Angeles College. Her dream was to attend the University of California, Los Angeles, and once it opened its doors to more minorities as a result of an affirmative action-type act she was able to attend. Hernandez’s fellow white classmates often mistook her for a wealthy Latin American since she was one of the few hispanics attending UCLA.
In 1971, Antonia Hernandez graduated from UCLA, School of Education and began teaching and promoting education among young Latinos. After holding a program to promote pursuing a higher education and no young student showed up, she realized that most were in jail or had other problems. She then made the decision to pursue a career in the legal system as she realized that working with the law was one of the only ways to “improve the quality of life for [her] community.” Her father also had a significant influence in her wanting to work towards bringing social change. During her years in college her father would drive her to public demonstrations where she would boycott and march.
While still a law student, Antonia took a job at the California Rural Legal Assistance office in Santa Monica as a clerk, and it was there where she met her husband, attorney Michael Stern. The year of 1974 was important to her. She graduated from the School of Law of UCLA as well as passed the California Bar Exam and became a United States Citizen. Following her graduation she worked in legal aid offices where she handled civil and criminal cases. She worked as a staff attorney at the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice and the Legal Aid Foundation. In 1979 and 1980 she worked as a staff counsel to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, being the first Latina to hold the position.
In 1981 Hernandez found a job at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also known as MALDEF, which is a support organization and litigation that uses the law and education to protect the civil rights of the 30 million Latinos in the United States. After four years with the organization she became the President and General Counsel. During her years working with MALDEF Hernandez targeted jurisdictions across the country where the civil rights of Latinos were denied. She fought for more equitable funds for education as well as immigration rights and language rights. In addition, she has defended many causes regarding Latinos in the United States such as the right of illegal aliens to go to university without having to pay higher quotas along with the right of Latinos to have access to the same employment and educational opportunities. One of her top priorities and biggest challenges is making reforms in public education and providing equal funding for the Latino community. Her focus was to make sure Latinos are recognized by legislators and taken into consideration when laws are created.
In 1987 she was fired by MALDEF’s executive committee in Dallas. She believed since the committee was entirely male, they fired her on the basis of gender in conjunction with their own personal agendas. She then sued them, won, and was reinstated. In 1990 Hernandez, with MALDEF, won a landmark redistricting case after accusing county officials of intentionally discriminating against the Latino community when drawing district lines preventing Latinos from effectively participating in the political process. After twenty-three years with the organization Hernandez decided to step down from her position because she believed it is “good to change, to be imposed new challenges.”
With this mindset, in 2004 she moved on to become the President and Chief Executive Officer of the California Community Foundation, one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the state. Although the nonprofit organization is known for providing financial support to organizations and institutions, Hernandez has expanded its roles to working in civic engagement and public policy initiatives regarding immigrant integration and education.
In an interview, Antonia Hernandez said, “ I’m a businesswoman and I am in the business of social change”. In this interview Antonia explains why she felt the need to move organizations. She says that the MALDEF is a great vehicle to undertake social change as well as the CCF. “The CCF is another vehicle that does the same, but with different tools,” Hernandez said . Hernandez is a great activist and has done many great things in both of these organizations.
Some of her great accomplishments within the MALDEF was fighting for voting rights within the latino community in various states including; California, Texas, Illinois,Wisconsin, Michigan, and some other states. There were several candidates running for public office that became benefitted by those movements, within them was Gloria Molina. She became the first Latina elected to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1991. In 1994, when proposition 187 was approved in California, the MALDEF with the guidance of Hernandez joined other groups in filing suits in federal courts. This proposition restricted access to public education, hospitals, and other services for undocumented immigrants, this was something that Antonia was strongly against for, so she felt the need to contribute with the fight against this proposition.
Hernandez has been involved in important cases regarding the violation of rights among Latinos. One of Hernandez’s main priorities is education within Latinos. She helped fight in the case of Edgewood Ind. Sch. Dist. v. Kirby in Texas. This case was about public education and although it was delayed for almost 10 years they won. As a result the state had the wealthier school districts share their funding with poorer school districts. This was a big success for Antonia Hernandez since by winning this case they created an educational system that provides greater opportunities for all Texas children. She was also involved in something similar in California when she decided to join the Godinez v. Davis. This case was about more money being given to suburban area schools and urban schools being short-changed, once again it was a success. The outcome of the case was an award of hundreds of millions of dollars for urban area schools and many of these schools had a significant number of Latino Students, which was something that made Antonia more proud. Those two examples are only some of the few cases that Hernandez has been successful in. She has also fought for some bilingual programs all over the United States not making an exception in California. Hernandez has also fought for equality in the workplace. She worked on the case Ballasteros v. Lucky because it was believed that there was some discrimination when hiring employees in the food service industries. The employers at these grocery stores were not hiring Latinos. After Hernandez successfully won the case many Latino employees were hired at those grocery stores. She also fought in some cases where they were fighting for the right of women to have the right to decide whether or not they wanted to be sterilized, after she found out some women had been sterilized without their consent. She has been a great leader to the Latino community not only when fighting for equal education, but also when fighting for other civil rights among the Latinos.
Antonia Hernandez has been recognized and awarded many times over and over for her work in social justice. She currently serves on multiple boards and committees including the UCLA School of Law Board of Advisors and the Council on Foreign Relations. Hernandez also holds leadership positions in civil and cultural groups such as the Latino Museum and is a member of the UCLA Latino Alumni Association. Antonia Hernandez has made a significant impact in the Latino community and continues to strive and fight for a better future for them.
“An Interview With Civil Rights Activist Antonia Hernández.” HarvardLatino Law Review 11.(2008): 321-332. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
“Antonia Hernandez, De MALDEF, Usa El Camino Legal Para Mejorar La Vida De La Juventud Latina.” El Mundo: 3. Jul 29 1999.ProQuest. Web. 25 April 2015.
Arredondo, Maria L. “Antonia Hernandez; ‘Nuestro Mayor Reto es la Educación’.” La OpiniónFeb 01 2004. ProQuest.Web. 24 April 2015.
Espino, Virginia. “Antonia Hernández.” The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Sotomayor, Frank O. “The Good FIGHT.” Hispanic 20.11 (2007): 38-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Stewart, Jocelyn Y. “COVER STORY; THE ADVOCATE; as the President of the MexicanAmerican Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Antonia Hernandez Speaks for Millions.” Los Angeles Times: 14. Sep 12 1999. ProQuest. Web. 125 April 2015.
Torres, Gerald. “An Interview With Civil Rights Activist Antonia Hernandez.” Harvard LatinoLaw Review 11 (2008); 322-332. ProQuest. Web. 26 April 2015.