Column: Mexican-Americans’ Problems With the Legal System Viewed

Justice is the most important word in race relations. Yet too many Mexican-Americans in the Southwest feel with David Sanchez, Los Angeles Brown Beret leader, that “to Anglos justice means just us.”

A report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights helps explains why Sanchez can successfully exploit his bitter theory. Called “Mexican-Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest,” the 135-page study concludes:

“The report paints a bleak picture of the relationship between Mexican-Americans in the Southwest and the agencies which administer justice in those states. The attitude of Mexican-Americans toward the institutions responsible for the administration of justice—the police, the courts and related agencies—is distrustful, fearful and hostile. Police departments, courts, the law itself are viewed as Anglo institutions in which Mexican-Americans have no stake and form which they do not expect fair treatment.”

La Ley or The Law, as Mexican-Americans call the administration of justice, takes forms that Anglos—and even blacks—never have to experience.

A Mexican-American, though a third generation American, for instance, may have to prove with documents that he is an American citizen at border crossings while a blue-eyed German immigrant, for example, can cross by merely saying “American.”

Besides the usual complaints made by racial minorities about police brutality and harassment, Mexican-Americans have an added problem: sometimes they literally cannot communicate with police.


The commission report tells of a young Mexican-American who, while trying to quell a potentially explosive situation, was arrested because the police officers, who did not understand Spanish, thought he was trying to incite the crowd to riot.

In another case, the report tells of a Mexican-American in Arizona who was held in jail for two months on a charge of sexually molesting his daughter. As it turned out, he had been mistakenly charged with the offense, but he did not voice any objections at the time because he did not understand the proceedings and no interpreter was provided for him.

A probation officer, who spoke Spanish, later talked to the defendant and upon learning the facts explained the situation to the local magistrate, who dismissed the case.

Among the most startling conclusions made by the commission, which is chaired by Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, concerns California grand juries. A commission study of the grand jury system of 22 California counties concluded that discrimination against Mexican-Americans in juror selection is as severe as—some times more than—discrimination against Negroes in grand juries in the South.

“In California,” the commission points out, “grand jurors have the authority to both indict persons for crimes and to investigate and evaluate the administration of local government. Because of this broad authority, exclusion of Mexican-Americans from grand juries not only may affect their ability to receive fair and impartial criminal justice, but also is likely to render grand juries less vigorous in inquiring into and exposing governmental deficiencies—in police departments and school systems, for example—adversely affecting “Mexican-Americans.”

“In Los Angeles County, with almost 500,000 eligible Spanish surnamed residents, only four served as grand jurors during the 12 years studied,” reports the commission, “while Orange County, California’s fifth largest (eligible Spanish surname population estimated at 44,000) had only one Spanish surnamed person on its grand jury lsits in the 12-year period.

Among the many other “findings” listed in the commission’s report are that “there is evidence of widespread patterns of police misconduct against Mexican-Americans in the Southwest,” and that “in several instances law enforcement officers interfered with Mexican-American organizational efforts aimed at improving the conditions of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest” and that “local officials in the Southwest abuse their discretion in setting excessive bail to punish Mexican-Americans rather than to guarantee their appearance for trial.”

As if to warn that continuing such practicies will only win new converts to Sanchez’ philosophy that “to Anglos justice means just us,” the commission concludes:

“The commission recognizes that individual law enforcement officers and court officers have made positive efforts to improve the administration of justice in their communities. The fact however, that Mexican-Americans see justice being administered unevenly throughout the Southwest tends to weaken their confidence in an otherwise fair system. In addition, the absence of impartial tribunals in which claims of mistreatment can be litigated to a conclusion accepted by all sides tends to breed further distrust and cynicism.”