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COVER STORY : THE ADVOCATE : As the President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Antonia Hernandez Speaks for Millions.

Jocelyn Y. Stewart is a Times staff writer

El Cambio, a communal ranch on the outskirts of Torreon in northern Mexico, is a good place to be born, with a canal running through it, a school for the children and bountiful harvests. It is a good place to grow, this huge ranch house full of family and good times. And it is where memory starts for Antonia Hernandez. As her story winds to the present, the beginning suddenly seems prophetic.

El Cambio means “The Change,” a fitting cradle for a woman whose life has twisted and turned so very much, taking her across the border and transforming her into an “East Los” girl in the projects of Los Angeles, a UCLA student activist and, finally, a socially conscious attorney and head of the most prominent Latino civil rights organization in the country. That she was born in 1948 across the border in a place called “The Change” may be nothing more than coincidence--or it may be a wink from the eye of destiny.

As president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Antonia Hernandez has spent the past 14 years fighting legal battles that have altered the political landscapes of the city and the nation. Supporters argue that MALDEF is why Los Angeles County has a Latina supervisor--Gloria Molina--and why Latinos in communities nationwide are studying to be leaders and sit on local boards and commissions.

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MALDEF filed the lawsuit that created Molina’s district. Its Leadership Development Program trains Latinos across the United States in skills needed to be effective on nonprofit and civic boards and commissions. This is not the feel-good, warm and fuzzy work that endears people easily to an organization. This work is tedious, the behind-the-scenes stuff of courtrooms and negotiating tables. But when there is a victory, the change affects the lives of millions.

“We’ve all got to figure out how to live with each other and make sure the nation is true to its promise,” says Washington, D.C., attorney Thomas Reston, a member of MALDEF’s board. “That’s the kind of tough patriotism that MALDEF has. It has changed America. It has changed the Latino community.”

*

The agent for all this change is a 51-year-old mother of three, the wife of attorney Michael Stern, the eldest of her parents’ seven children and a member in good standing of “Las Girls,” a tight circle of Latinas that includes Molina and a former UC regent.

As she sits behind an immaculate desk in her Spring Street office, Hernandez is gracious and smiling. Her hair is thick and glossy, her skin is lovely and she is impeccably dressed.

All that loveliness can mask the side of Hernandez that has earned her a seat at this desk and the right to advocate for 29 million Latinos, who may or may not always agree with her positions.

“You’re gonna get possibly two divergent views,” she says. “One is people will tell you that I’m very nice, very sweet. I don’t scream. I don’t yell. I don’t have tantrums.” Her hands are stretched before her on the redwood desk, tapping out every adjective, in teacherly fashion.

“Others will tell you that I’m a real son-of-a-beehive. You don’t cross me. I can tangle with the best, and I don’t back down, and I’m not afraid to take on anything or anybody.”

“I always say, ‘I don’t get ulcers,’ ” she says sweetly. “ ‘I give them.’ ”

This is what you hear when you listen closely: Sweetness and fire. Levelheaded pragmatism and passion. She confesses to all. Others confess for her:

“No one ever leaves a meeting with Antonia wondering what she feels about something,” says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee, who watched Hernandez help mediate a conflict between Latinos and Jews last year, an offshoot of a nasty contest pitting Richard Alarcon against Richard Katz for the state’s 20th senatorial district seat.

A flier sent by Alarcon’s backers angered some in the Jewish community, but at the meeting Hernandez explained that they were not alone in feeling offended. “The press has done very well in articulating how upset you folks are,” she said. “Let me explain how we see this issue.”

A mailing from Katz’s campaign depicted an image of dirty hands. It was supposedly a jab at Alarcon, but it was interpreted as a slight to Latinos. “We were deeply offended by that,” Hernandez said.

After his defeat, Katz threatened to ask for a recount. That, too, was offensive, Hernandez said; in the view of many Latinos, it called into question the integrity of those who voted for Alarcon.

“I told them I was not there to represent Alarcon,” she says, recalling the meeting. “My interest was in protecting the integrity of the Latino voters and all of the voters who voted for Alarcon. My role was the respect of our community and their collective vote.”

Greenebaum has come to expect--and appreciate that type of candor from Hernandez. Certainly the supporters of Propositions 187, 209 and 227 are among those who now know what to expect. Whether they appreciate it is another matter.

The day after 187 passed in November 1994, MALDEF and other civil rights organizations launched a battle to have the proposition struck down. The organization had two attorneys working on the lawsuit full time, and has spent more than $420,000 on the case.

In 1998, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer ruled that much of Prop. 187, which would have denied education and health benefits to undocumented immigrants, was unconstitutional. In July, the civil rights organizations reached a settlement with Gov. Gray Davis, after four months of closed-door negotiations monitored by federal court authorities. In essence, 187 was dead.

The day after the settlement, the mood at the MALDEF office was victorious. At a news conference that morning, the politicians thanked the legal organizations, and the organizations thanked the politicians. When it was her time to speak, Hernandez issued a special thanks, in Spanish, to former Gov. “Pedro” Wilson, who had endorsed 187. Because of Wilson, she said, California’s Latino community rallied and is stronger than ever.

*

El Cambio is an Ejido, a communal ranch created out of a land reform program instituted in Mexico in the 1930s. Owned by no one and everyone, it was the family home of Hernandez’s mother, Nicolasa.

Hernandez’s father, Manuel, was born in Texas, but during the Great Depression, his family, like many other Latino families, was sent to Mexico. The way the story is told among the Hernandezes, government officials would pass through small towns in Texas and announce to residents of Mexican ancestry: “There is no work. Just go.” Then they handed out one-way train tickets. Manuel Hernandez and his parents and siblings left Texas and its hostility in 1934. On the journey to Mexico, his father died. Manuel was 8 years old.

“Dad always knew he was a U.S. citizen, born in this country, so he kept going back and forth,” Hernandez says. “He determined we would have more educational opportunities if we crossed into the States.” In May of 1956, Manuel and Nicolasa and four children left El Cambio and headed north. They crossed the border June 27.

What awaited them, the Maravilla housing projects in East L.A., was nothing like El Cambio. At the ranch, Antonia had attended a school taught by a cousin. She had begged to start early and was always a good student. At Reagan Elementary School, the student body was “100%" Latino, but few students spoke Spanish. At that time, bilingualism was nothing to be celebrated and “English only” was the de facto law. So when the new kid showed up in starched pinafores, speaking not a word of English, only a few students would talk to her. More often they talked about her. That ranchera dress, her long braided hair, her Spanish--it was like wearing a bull’s eye on her back: “Direct all teasing here.”

“They used to call me a mojada,” Hernandez says. “I was the new immigrant kid. I was a wetback.”

At home she was not a mojada. She was second in command, one step down from the throne of parental authority. When her parents were working in the nursery or chicken factory or manufacturing plant, Toni was in charge. She taught her siblings the English she had learned, as well as what she had learned about success and reaching goals.

“We wouldn’t dare talk back to her,” says younger sister Lupe Hernandez, an elementary schoolteacher in Paramount. “We just saw she worked so hard and she was so smart. With only three years between us, you would think we would have more of a peer relationship. It was more we looked up to her. She was like a second mother to me.”

To make ends meet, Hernandez and her father worked the circuit of East L.A. garages and bars, selling her mother’s tamales. They had a system: Friday nights after work and Saturdays around lunchtime, they showed up ready to sell to hungry people.

Later she worked at a produce market, then at Grand Central Market. In the summers they were all migrant workers, following the crops. The family spent long days under a hot sun picking whatever needed picking, in Fresno, Bakersfield, Modesto. By the time she graduated from Garfield High School she was working to help the family come up with a down payment for a house.

At that time, her dream was to finish at East Los Angeles College and go to the big school across the freeway, Cal State L.A. But when UCLA opened its doors in the form of an affirmative action-type program, she jumped at the chance. For all their strictness and traditional beliefs, the Hernandezes were ahead of their time, firm believers that their girls could do anything. Her dad packed the whole family in a beige Chrysler and headed off to find UCLA. The daughter nicknamed “Bones” because she was so skinny would learn to deal with dorm food, campus life and being one of a very few.

White students figured her to be a rich Latin American kid. What else could explain her presence on campus in 1969 when Latino and African American students were a rarity? Hernandez’s way of speaking--very proper, very formal--buttressed the wealthy-daughter theory. The truth behind her syntax was far less romantic: she didn’t know English well enough to abuse it. She still translated English into Spanish, Spanish into English, in her head, speaking in short, complete, correct sentences. That way of speaking and thinking would last until her second year of law school.

Hernandez met Michael Stern in the summer of 1973. He was an attorney at the California Rural Legal Assistance Office in Santa Maria. She was still a student at UCLA School of Law, working in the office as a law clerk. What he remembers most about her was her energy, her intelligence, her ability to relate to the clients.

Hernandez’s life as an activist was sealed. She taught school, she worked in legal aid offices, and in 1979 and 1980, she was a staff counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the first Latina to hold that position. In 1985 she was tapped to head MALDEF.

*

All of those who said that we did not want to be part [of the political system] were wrong. We want a seat at the table. We want to be part of the solution. We recognize that in the state of California, leadership and how we handle that mantle is not just for the well-being of our community but for the well-being of the entire state of California. And so as we tweak the system, if we sometimes seem too abrasive, if we sometimes challenge the status quo, keep in mind one very important point: This is the ultimate compliment to American society. We do it all within the system. We do it all to protect the system . . .

And now it is my privilege to introduce a friend. Yes, he is the vice president of the United States, the second-most powerful man in this world. But he is a friend to MALDEF and to the Latino community. I present to you the vice president of the United States, Al Gore.

*

The woman who once hawked tamales is introducing Gore at MALDEF’s annual dinner. They greet each other like old friends in front of an audience at the Beverly Hilton. It is a dazzling night, a night of mariachi-backed jubilance following a watershed election last fall.

“We here in California have new folks going to Congress and to the state Legislature,” Hernandez rejoiced on that November night. “It is not just California. In Nueva Mexico, four Latinos were elected to statewide office. In Texas, in the states of Massachusetts, Wisconsin. In Michigan for the first time, we have Latinos elected to the state Legislature. In the city of San Jose, the third-largest city in the state of California, we have our first Latino mayor.”

(MALDEF, board member Reston says, had a hand in each of the victories because of its historic role in increasing participation in the electoral process and opening the process to all. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed during the height of the civil rights movement, did not cover Texas and other Southwestern states. It was worded to protect the rights of minority voters in the South. When the act was up for renewal in 1975, MALDEF successfully pushed Congress to extend its protections to Texas and other Southwestern states where gerrymandering had kept Latinos out of office. That effort laid the groundwork for a redistricting lawsuit that led to Molina being elected to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors and helped the careers of U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, former congressman from New Mexico, and others across the country.)

There was much to celebrate that night, but Hernandez’s life is usually a much less glittering affair. It is long plane rides and longer stretches away from home. She is responsible for managing a nearly $6-million budget, a 75-person staff in offices across the country and litigation and advocacy programs. To say nothing of all those legal battles.

Among those Hernandez is likely to stare down from the other side of the debate lectern is Linda Chavez, who headed the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan Administration. In Chavez’s view, Hernandez “has been a forceful advocate for her point of view, and she’s certainly done a good job promoting MALDEF’s agenda.” But, she adds, “I think MALDEF’s agenda has been bad for Hispanics.”

Chavez, now president of the Washington,D.C.-based Center for Equal Opportunity, argues that “groups like MALDEF are irrelevant” for middle-class Mexican Americans. MALDEF actually dilutes Latino political power, she says, “by gerrymandering middle-class Hispanics out of their regular voting districts in order to put them into super-majority Hispanic districts.”

Hernandez and MALDEF have also come under fire for the organization’s opposition to last year’s Prop. 227, which ended bilingual education in California. The ballot initiative divided the state’s Latinos. Chavez called MALDEF’s support of bilingual education harmful to children. Famed schoolteacher Jaime Escalante was honorary chairman of the “English for the Children” campaign. Early polls of Latino voters showed they supported the initiative (opponents argued that those polled did not clearly understand it). Parents at 9th Street School in downtown L.A. kept their children out of school in protest of bilingual education.

The issue was so divisive that former allies found themselves on opposing sides. At the start of the campaign, millionaire Ron Unz, the initiative’s author and an opponent of Proposition 187, met with Hernandez and other MALDEF staffers. He was hoping to win an endorsement. Hernandez, he says, was hoping to win time.

The three-hour meeting, which Unz characterizes as friendly, left minds unchanged. “What she really seemed very passionate about was the whole issue of changing the educational system to improve Latino performance,” Unz says.

Hernandez saw the meeting as perfunctory at best. “I felt he was coming in just to say he met with me. That train had left the station. It was going to happen,” she says of the campaign. She urged Unz to work with her and others “to try and correct the errors.” The problem, she says, is that bilingual education was never supported properly.

Having come to this country not speaking English, and with three sisters who teach bilingual education, Hernandez says she knows why it is needed and why sometimes it is not effective. “I strongly believe it is important to find a way of transitioning students from their native language to English,” she says. “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.”

Alice Callaghan, an immigrant-rights activist, was used to fighting alongside Hernandez, but she supported and helped write 227. MALDEF believed it was fighting to keep a hard-won gain for the Latino community, Callaghan says, but at her center, Las Familias del Pueblo, poor families 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 says. “The view from the streets was MALDEF was fighting hard to keep a program for our families, but our families didn’t want it. Obviously I think that Antonia was wrong on this issue. But I still respect her enormously, and I respect the work that MALDEF does. Antonia is absolutely committed to the Latino community and has spent her life fighting on their behalf.”

*

Antonia Hernandez is in her office, handling an important call. She’s flipping through a much-used date book searching for a time. “Are you going to be here for our dinner?” Hernandez says. “The dinner’s the 12th. And you know who’s going to be our keynote speaker? Exciting Gore. [Pause] I pray he doesn’t do that stupid dance. I’m gonna talk to his handlers.”

The two friends find a date to meet. Talk more about mutual acquaintances. Then the conversation ends.

“Oye, mujer, me tengo que ir,” Hernandez says. “You’ll catch up with all the gossip at the dinner. Un abrazo. OK? Bye.”

“That’s the rep from Anheuser-Busch,” she says after hanging up. “We’re trying to get them to buy a table at the dinner. It’s business.”

Sometimes the line seems blurred. Her friends read like a list of who’s who. “She’s a charmer,” says Reston. “I think she has a genius for friendship. She’s an absolutely delightful person and a good and loyal friend.”

In Las Girls, her friends include Molina, who is president of MALDEF’s board of directors; Vilma Martinez, the former regent and an attorney at Munger, Tolles & Olson; Evelyn Martinez, former executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a Drug-Free Community; Dr. Cynthia Telles, a psychiatrist at the Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital at UCLA; and Monica Lozano, an associate publisher at La Opinion.

They get together regularly to celebrate birthdays, and visit museums and support each other. It is a relationship that has lasted for years. “It is so much fun,” Hernandez says. “We talk, we giggle. We do what friends do.”

With friends like these, it is safe to say Hernandez is well-connected. And with a salary of $135,000, she left poor behind a long time ago. So how does she stay in touch with the needs of those Latinos who are as poor and marginalized as she once was? Hernandez acknowledges the challenge.

“I was dirt poor,” she says. “I worked in the fields. I lived in the projects . . . But now I’m as middle class as they come.”

She makes a point of finding ways to stay connected, often with her parents serving as her Latino everyman. Sometimes she joins them at a flea market when they sell bedspreads, sheets and curtains sewn by her mother; on these occasions, Hernandez is merely Antonia, eldest child and loving daughter, not president and general counsel of MALDEF.

How she fits everything into her life is a miracle that leaves even her priest marveling. She served on the school board of the Catholic school her children attended, and showed up at the carnivals and whenever the school needed her. “She was so present,” says Father Gary Bauler. “Beyond just her own family, she was concerned about all the families in the area.”

Hernandez lives with her husband and children in Pasadena, on the same street as her parents. The extended family is close; at one time nine Hernandez children attended the same parochial school. Grandparents and aunts help with the children: Benjamin, 18, just started at Brown University; Marisa is 16 and a junior in high school; and Michael, 13, is in the eighth grade.

Hernandez relies on her faith to manage her many lives. She attends Mass wherever she travels. “That surprises a lot of people who know her publicly,” Stern says. But “you’ll find her at the church every Sunday morning at 9:30 wherever she is. The principles she espouses in her daily work are consistent with her religious beliefs.”

*

In 1987 Hernandez lost her job. Briefly. In January of that year, MALDEF’s executive committee asked her to travel to Dallas and, in a tense meeting, fired her. At the time, board chairman Eric P. Serna refused to say why publicly. But in a letter sent to board members, he accused Hernandez of mishandling a major job-discrimination class-action lawsuit. “In a nutshell, Ms. Hernandez had ill-served MALDEF,” Serna wrote.

Hernandez’s replacement was to be Toney Anaya, former governor of New Mexico.

Had the committee asked her nicely, she might have stepped down, she says. Anything for the good of the organization. Instead it tried to embarrass her in public. Bad move.

Instead of sweetness, it got fire. The battle was on. The worst part was flying back to Los Angeles and explaining it all to her parents, who were used to hearing only good news from their eldest child. Then the story hit the news. During the height of it, her mother advised her: “Mi hija, no chilles en publico.” My daughter, don’t cry in public.

“I looked at her and said, ‘Mom, that’s the last thing you have to worry about,’ ” she says. “Worry about me doing something else in public!”

As painful as the whole episode was, tears were not part of her strategy. She argued that the executive committee had no authority to fire her, only the 34-member board of directors could do that. She was fired on a Saturday. On Tuesday she was back at work, with her staff solidly behind her, too angry to cry, too determined to back down.

Offers of help poured in. Off-duty police officers said they would serve as her bodyguards. Others said they would guard the building. Benefactors offered their clout, but Hernandez refused. “I called right away and said, ‘Pray for me and stay out of it.’ ”

Ultimately she sued the executive committee in Dallas and won. The coup against her was led by men. The real issue, Hernandez says, was gender and power. She did not fit their image of a leader. They wanted to control MALDEF and the huge grants she’d brought in during the two years she’d been there, she says. (Calls for this article to former members of the executive committee were not returned.)

“In the classic sense, they totally misread the environment,” she says.

Hernandez has reconciled with her former enemies; she sees some of them around town in L.A. and is always cordial, even sweet. “It’s easy to be gracious,” she says. “I won.”

*

The city she discovered in 1956 has changed. Los Angeles has become Latinized, Hernandez says, and she loves it.

“There is no place like Southern California,” she announces, sounding every bit the optimist she is. “The diversity. Things are so fluid. It’s so fascinating what’s happening to us as a community. It’s not just Latinos. It’s Armenians, it’s African Americans, it’s Asians, and the whites that stay here. To live in L.A. requires a certain type of person with a certain type of personality.”

But what of those times when tensions flare? What about predictions of a blood bath between Latinos and African Americans in 2001 when the issue of council redistricting is revisited and more council districts are expected to end up with Latino leadership?

“It’s going to be a blood bath if I go in with the state of mind that it’s ‘my turn’ and nobody else’s at the table,” she says. “It is not going to be a blood bath if I say, ‘I need to be at the table as an equal and we need to talk things through.’ The media always want to have a pissing fight between Latinos and blacks. It isn’t news if we’re getting along, it’s news if we aren’t getting along.”

The question of power-sharing also applies to her and other Latino activists of her generation.

“Are we holding back progress?” she asks. “Are we going to give our emerging leadership a chance to form their own politics based on their experiences?”

Hernandez has already prepared a transition document at MALDEF. This is not a sign that she has immediate plans, she says, but she never wants to stand in the way of progress at an organization she loves. So when will Antonia Hernandez know it is time to leave MALDEF and allow another visionary in?

“I’m beginning to ask that question,” she says. “I don’t know when I will know. I do know this: Change is good. I’m not afraid of change.”

A fitting response for a girl from El Cambio. Destiny must be smiling.


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