LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Antonia Hernandez : Working for the Latino Cause With Soft-Spoken Determination

<i> Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." He interviewed Antonia Hernandez at the MALDEF offices in downtown Los Angeles</i>

The heat isn’t working on the 12th-floor offices of MALDEF--the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The building is being renovated and the attorneys, mostly young and mostly female, work with their coats on. These public-interest lawyers are handling all manner of cases--from guaranteeing Latinos access to insurance coverage, to challenging employer English-only policies. Their boss, MALDEF President and general counsel Antonia Hernandez, sets a high standard.

Hernandez, as leader of MALDEF, won a 12-year legal battle with the Los Angeles County Supervisors over redistricting, which led to the election of Gloria Molina as the first Latina supervisor. She’s litigated countless other cases, winning suits preventing the Immigration and Naturalization Service from illegally raiding workplaces and forcing the Los Angeles Unified School District to increase funding for inner-city schools.

Hernandez immigrated to the United States with her family in 1956, when she was 8. She became politicized during the civil-rights and Chicano movements of the 1960s, dropped her plans to study history and earned a law degree at UCLA. Hernandez worked at a variety of public-interest law organizations, including the L.A. Center for Law and Justice, where she brought a number of brutality suits against the Los Angeles Police Department--and often came up against a young prosecutor, Gil Garcetti, who is now the Los Angeles District Attorney. In 1976, her friend Molina got a job in the Carter White House; Molina found out about a position on Capitol Hill and suggested Hernandez apply. The young lawyer got the job and became the first Latina counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee.


When the Democrats lost control of the Senate in 1980, Hernandez returned to Los Angeles and began her work with MALDEF. The civil-rights organization, now in its 25th year, is charged with improving educational opportunities, securing legalization and naturalization for immigrants, and garnering political access for the 24 million Latinos living in the United States.

Hernandez has established herself as a force to be reckoned with at both the local and national levels. She was on the committee that found a replacement for former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, and, more recently, she has been consulted by members of the Clinton transition team for her advice on Latino issues and appointments. Hernandez has a soft-speaking voice that belies her determination: Like many other politically active Latinos, she believes the ‘90s will see the blossoming of her community as a powerful political force.

Question: When you met with the Clinton transition people, what did you tell them are the most important economic issues in the Latino community today?

Answer: Job training. In the past, these programs have not been effective within the minority community. Then the issue of minimum wage, which is critical to us. The effect of tax reforms on poor people--they are talking about the possibility of an added gas tax. That hits hardest those who can least afford it, and who have to commute to their jobs. These are poor people’s issues, and they are the ones we’ve brought to the attention of the Clinton transition team.


Q: The main players on President-elect Clinton’s economic team are white males. Do you have any indication that someone in the inner circle will be speaking up for Latinos?

A: Whether Henry Cisneros (former mayor of San Antonio) is appointed to fill Lloyd Bentsen’s Senate seat, or gets appointed to a Cabinet post--he has been a close adviser to President-elect Clinton for quite some time, so we have access there. This access can come not only from the Latinos in the Administration, but also from others. I know Vernon Jordon from our civil-rights days. I also know (Clinton campaign chairman) Mickey Kantor, who’s been on the board of MALDEF. And, of course, Warren Christopher. So at least the people around Clinton--some of the main players--are familiar with the Southwest, with the experience of the Latino community.


We’ve been assured that the Latino presence in the campaign will be reflected in the appointments that are made. Of course, we’ve been told that before. But this is a time when we are beyond the “trust us” stage. We want specifics and we don’t want to be told that the big guys will take care of us. We want to be part of the group of people doing the governing.


Q: The electorate, in general, seemed more interested in this presidential campaign than in those of the recent past. Was that reflected in the Latino community as well?

A: Absolutely. The statistics show that there is an increasing interest in the Latino community in political participation. But the Latino community cares much more about local politics--and the talent coming out of the local races in Latino communities brought a lot of people out to vote for Clinton.


Q: Still, aren’t there problems getting Latinos registered--for instance, there are districts in Los Angeles where, in numbers, Latinos are in the majority, but on the voter roles they make up less than 10%?

A: People look at our community and say we don’t participate as much, but once you look at those who are citizens and eligible to participate, it’s a high percentage of people who do vote. We have a large percentage who are not citizens and a very large percentage of people who are under 18. What we want to do is take advantage of the fact that there are close to 2 million individuals who are now eligible for naturalization--they’ve gone through all the steps for legalization, now we want to get them naturalized. People who naturalize are much more likely to participate in voting--you know, there’s nothing worse than a convert--so we will be mounting some major naturalization drives. Until we get our people to become citizens, and then to register and to vote, we won’t have an effective voting bloc. So the numbers can be deceiving.

Look at South-Central Los Angeles. In the City Council, it’s represented by Rita Walters (an African-American). But in the state Assembly, it’s represented by Marta Escutia (a Latina elected to the newly created Assembly seat). Well, it is now Marta Escutia’s responsibility to mount voter-registration drives and naturalization drives--it’s in her political self-interest. So we have now the vehicle to do the homework we have to do.


Q: But this brings up a sensitive issue: As Latinos harness their political power, African-Americans often see that as a challenge. How do you diffuse that conflict, and perhaps create a coalition?

A: South-Central Los Angeles has gone from African-American to Latino in just the last 10 years. If I were in their shoes, I would also feel threatened--so from the Latino community there is a certain understanding. Sharing power is not easy--I know, I have three kids. It’s so difficult to share, and so the transfer of power, even under the best of circumstances, is a difficult prospect. So to minimize the tension, first we have to get both communities to realize what’s going on, how quickly our communities have changed. And secondly, we have to look at the long haul. We are going to have to work in coalitions--it’s in everybody’s self-interest. There is going to be no majority as we now know it. So the question is: How do we work together to serve everybody’s interests.


Q: How do you see Latinos maximizing their impact on the coming mayoral and City Council races?

A: In talking to the Latino leadership, there doesn’t seem to be much excitement, nor any unanimity, over any of the candidates who have thrown in their hat so far. I think we may be all over the place because, at least right now, I don’t see a candidate the Latino community will rally behind.


Q: There is a certain line of thinking that maintains the difference between the Latino immigrant and all the waves of immigrants before is that the Latino has not assimilated. When you hear that charge, how do you respond?

A: Hogwash. You know, it’s ignorance and xenophobia at its best. For immigrants like the Italians and the Germans, the flow came, and stopped. Those people had to assimilate, and they did. With Latinos, people just keep coming, and coming, so the perception is that we are not assimilating. But I am a first-generation immigrant, and if you don’t call me mainstream and assimilated, I don’t know what you can call me.

Because of the proximity to Mexico, and the constant immigration, there is a strong pull for us to keep our language. But that doesn’t mean you don’t learn English--in fact the biggest problem for second- and third-generation parents is the kids lose Spanish. But if we don’t invest in education and put in mechanisms to integrate these folks coming in, you will develop an outsider class.


Q: What are MALDEF’s biggest concerns?

A: Our issues remain the same. Voter access--we are continuing our work in redistricting. We are concerned with the whole issue of language. How language is being used--the English-only rules. We are trying to establish bilingualism or trilingualism as an asset in this county. You know, it’s the only country in the world where being educated doesn’t require you to speak more than one language.

Another concern is immigration, particularly with the nativist, anti-immigrant feeling, which is fueled by the economy and a whole bunch of other factors. We saw how some of the presidential candidates used immigration as an issue, and also what’s happening throughout the world--what’s happening in Germany is very troubling, because we are not isolated. So how do we deal with these issues of migration in an environment that is not xenophobic?

Education--it continues to be the cornerstone of our work. The issues of funding for all levels of education concern us. . . . And then the whole area of employment. We’re concerned about what this Administration is going to do with job training, with minimum wage. What they are going to do to get the economy going again.

You know, Latinos have the highest work-participation (rate) of any community. They will work anywhere. But they also have the highest poverty rate. It’s not that they don’t work; it’s that they don’t earn enough. As for welfare, most Latinos live in two-parent families, so they don’t qualify for programs like AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). And this is not a homogenous community. There are great differences between the Puerto Rican and the Cuban and the Mexican and the now emerging Latin American communities. The Clinton Administration and local and state governments really have to spend more time understanding our community. We do not meet the common stereotype profile. It’s not that we are better, or that we are worse--we’re just different.


Q: Some people are saying that, in 1996, Texas and California may be Latino swing states--and an expanding Latino voting bloc could be instrumental in electing the next President. Do you believe that?

A: Yes, but much more so in Texas. I think in California we have the potential, but a lot of it will depend on our ability to naturalize and register voters. If you look at what happened with Clinton in Texas, it was in the south, where the population is heavily Latino, where he was the strongest. Next to the African-American vote, the next group that gave Clinton the most solid vote was the Latino community. More than organized labor, more than any other interest group.

If you look at the history of the Latino movement, most of the organizing efforts were done in Texas. That’s why if Henry Cisneros is appointed to the Senate, it is only natural. Texas is where we have a Latino in the state supreme court who was elected by the people, that’s where we have a Latino attorney general, and so you see that progress. California is just right on the edge. MALDEF didn’t really start in California until the early ‘80s. So we are going to do the same concentrated effort that we did in Texas, and you are going to see the same results.