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Albert Armendariz Sr., 88; lawyer helped change the legal landscape for Latinos

Times Staff Writer

After serving in the Army during World War II, Albert Armendariz Sr. returned to civilian life with a new view of himself and his Mexican American community.

“Before the war, we were inconsequential,” Armendariz told the El Paso Times in 2005. “When we came back, we rose. We found out in the war that we had value and we instilled that value in our people.”

Armendariz, who went on to prominence as a civil rights attorney and a founder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, died Thursday in a Brownsville, Texas, hospital following surgery two weeks earlier, said his oldest son, Albert Armendariz Jr. He was 88.

“His legacy is . . . another generation of leaders of organizations and people using their legal education to defend the rights of Latinos, whether they’re the newest newcomers or have been here for a few generations and still face discrimination,” said John Trasvina, MALDEF’s president and general counsel.

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Through his work with national organizations such as MALDEF and the League of United Latin American Citizens, Armendariz helped change the legal landscape for Latinos in Texas and nationwide.

In 1954, while serving as president of LULAC, Armendariz helped argue Hernandez vs. the State of Texas, a landmark case that established Latinos as a distinct class entitled to protection under the 14th Amendment.

In El Paso in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Armendariz served on the El Paso Civil Service Commission and is credited with helping to open the city’s police and fire departments to Mexican Americans.

Representing MALDEF in the 1970s, Armendariz argued Alvarado vs. El Paso Independent School District, a landmark case that resulted in a federal court order requiring desegregation in El Paso schools.

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Throughout his career, Armendariz operated his private practice from a small office less than four blocks from his childhood home.

Armendariz was born Aug. 11, 1919, in El Paso, one of seven children. Before World War II, he worked as a shoe salesman and an auto mechanic. Prospects for Latino advancement were bleak until the war.

“I credit World War II with making us aware of the other side of the coin,” Armendariz said in a 1992 article in the Dallas Morning News. “For instance, we got into a Jeep, drove a Jeep, when many of us had never gotten into a car. We got into office jobs and were given the right to do that. We got behind a gun and were given the responsibility to fire.”

After the war, Armendariz used the GI Bill to enroll at what is now the University of Texas at El Paso. As he began classes, he was married -- to his high school sweetheart, Mary Lou -- and a father. In 1947, he enrolled at USC’s law school, where he was the only Latino in his class.

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“Everyone from the administrators to the professors to the students believed that I had no place on the campus,” he said in the spring 2001 edition of “Narratives,” the newspaper component of an oral history project at the University of Texas at Austin. “It was horrific at times, but when I’d come home complaining to my wife, she’d ball me out and say, ‘You’re not here to make friends; you’re here to become a lawyer.’ ”

In 1950, Armendariz graduated from USC and moved back to Texas, where he started a practice and became “one of the few lawyers back then who did immigration law” in El Paso, his eldest son said.

For nine years beginning in 1976, Armendariz served as an administrative judge in immigration, a position that, in those days, gave him “the discretion to look at somebody’s background and character and waive some of the rules and allow them to start a new path in this country,” said Trasvina, the MALDEF official.

In 1986, Armendariz was appointed to the Texas Court of Appeals to serve out the term of a judge who died. He was on the bench from July 2, 1986, to Nov. 30, 1986.

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Armendariz never retired. He continued to practice with his son and remained active on immigrant issues.

In addition to his eldest son, Armendariz is survived by his second wife, Mari; sons Edward of Greer, S.C., John David of El Paso and Larry of Nashville; and daughters Maria Leticia Robert of McAllen, Texas, and Mary Lou Contreras of El Paso.

In 2001, Armendariz returned to USC and spoke to a room full of Latino law students. He told them the health of the nation depended on people of various backgrounds working together.

“We have no business turning a deaf ear when someone says something [derogatory] about blacks or Asians, because tomorrow they will say it about you,” he said, according to the fall 2001 issue of USC Law Magazine. “In everything we do in life, remember that we are all Americans.”

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jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com


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