Vilma Socorro Martinez

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Vilma Socorro Martinez

Since the early 1970s, Mexican American attorney and activist Vilma Martinez (born 1943) has been a leading advocate for the civil rights of Hispanic Americans, especially at the ballot box.

Growing up as a Mexican American in Texas during the 1940s and 1950s, Vilma Martinez experienced the effects of racial prejudice firsthand. Later, also because of her ethnicity, she was discouraged from trying to obtain a college education, but she ultimately graduated from a distinguished law school. While still in her twenties, she participated in an important civil rights case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court. Martinez subsequently served for nearly a decade as head of one of the most prominent advocacy organizations in the country. More recently, her work as a lawyer in private practice has focused on resolving labor disputes.

Vilma Martinez was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1943. As a Mexican American, she was often treated like a second-class citizen. Even though she was an honor student in high school, for example, she found herself steered away from academics by a counselor who tried to convince her that someone of her background would be better off attending a trade school than a major university. Martinez ignored that advice and instead enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin.

While working her way through college in the biochemistry lab, Martinez met a professor who recognized her potential. In marked contrast to her high-school counselor, the professor insisted that Martinez not only belonged in the world of higher education, but that she should go on to obtain a graduate degree-preferably out east, far from the state of Texas and its history of prejudice against Mexican Americans. Thus, after receiving her bachelor's degree, Martinez went on to Columbia University in New York City, where she studied law.

Joined NAACP Staff

By 1967, Martinez had earned her law degree from Columbia. She soon went to work for the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In her job, she defended a number of poor and minority clients. She also served as the attorney for the petitioner in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Company, a landmark action that ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court and helped establish the doctrine of affirmative action.

The Griggs case tested the limits of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had prohibited employers from using race, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin as a factor for consideration in hiring. In issuing its decision, the Supreme Court found that a company's practice could be discriminatory even if it did not intend to perpetuate racial imbalance by that policy. Thus, if a company hired candidates solely or chiefly on the basis of their training and it could be proven that minorities had in the past been prevented from receiving such training, then the training requirements for the job were discriminatory. In 1972, partly in response to the Griggs decision, the federal government under President Richard Nixon enacted Executive Order 11246, which mandated a nationwide policy of affirmative action.

After spending several years with the NAACP, Martinez left in 1970 to serve as an equal opportunity counselor for the New York State Division of Human Rights. In this role, she created new rules and procedures governing the rights of employees. In 1971 she joined the firm of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in New York City, where she worked as a labor lawyer.

Assumed Presidency of MALDEF

It was during her stint at the law firm that Martinez and one of her colleagues, Grace Olivarez, became the first women to join the board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, which was patterned after its counterpart at the NAACP. Soon afterward, in 1973, Martinez was hired as the advocacy organization's general counsel and president. Thus began a new era in both her life and in the history of MALDEF.

MALDEF had been founded in San Antonio in 1968 in response to years of discrimination and civil-rights violations against Mexican Americans. When Martinez came aboard, the fledgling group's mission was fairly clear but its financial stability was in doubt. In fact, she and other MALDEF staff members wondered if it could stay solvent from month to month since there was no regular source of funding. Thus, one of Martinez's most significant accomplishments as head of MALDEF was developing an operating framework that enabled it to grow and support a broader array of activities.

By the time she left in 1982, MALDEF had an annual budget of nearly $5 million, thanks to an increase in the number of corporate sponsors and foundation grants. As of 1998, MALDEF had become a large national nonprofit organization with 75 employees, including 22 attorneys. Its headquarters had moved from San Antonio to Los Angeles, and it boasted regional offices in San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., as well as satellite and program offices in Detroit, El Paso, Sacramento, Fresno, and Santa Ana. Hence MALDEF could truly claim-as its site on the World Wide Web declared-to "protect and promote the civil rights of over 26 million Latinos living in the United States."

Spearheaded Historic Legal Challenges

On the legal front, MALDEF made U.S. civil rights history during Martinez's tenure as general counsel and president when she directed a program that helped secure an extension of the Voting Rights Act to include Mexican Americans among the groups it protected. When first passed by Congress in 1965, the Voting Rights Act had been aimed primarily at protecting black voters in the South, who were often harassed, intimidated, or forced to pass unconstitutional voting tests to keep them away from the ballot box. The only other group specifically protected by the act were Puerto Ricans, but Martinez and others were aware of voting-rights abuses involving Mexican Americans as well. Many of these were similar to the threats and tricks used on blacks and played on the additional factor of the language barrier. Therefore MALDEF began urging Congress to extend the purview of the Voting Rights Act to include Mexican Americans.

In pursuing this aim, Martinez and her colleagues faced opposition from various white and conservative groups as well as from an unexpected foe-the NAACP. Its director, Clarence Mitchell, maintained that expanding the Voting Rights Act to include other groups would weaken its protection of blacks, and therefore he opposed MALDEF's efforts. But other African American groups, most notably the Congressional Black Caucus, threw their support behind the idea. In 1975, the movement met with success when Congress finally agreed to extend the existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act and expand it to include Mexican Americans.

Another important legal victory that occurred during Martinez's decade at MALDEF was the 1974 ruling guaranteeing that non-English-speaking children in public schools could obtain bilingual education. And near the end of her tenure, she became involved in the landmark case of Plyler v. Doe. At issue was a Texas law that denied free public education to children of illegal aliens. Under the law, the parents of those children had to pay $1, 000 tuition per year. Not only was it unlikely that anyone would come forward and identify himself or herself as an illegal alien, but few undocumented immigrants-most of whom survived on menial labor jobs-had the money to pay such an amount. Martinez argued that the children of illegal immigrants were in essence Americans by virtue of the fact that they had lived in the country for years, even if they were not citizens in the legal sense. In 1982, the courts finally agreed, and the tuition payment requirement was lifted.

Broadened Her Scope

While she was working with MALDEF, Martinez participated in a number of other activities on behalf of Mexican Americans. From 1975 to 1981, for example, she served as a volunteer consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among the achievements of the panel that she chaired was the addition of a question to the census form asking if the respondent was Hispanic. This change had far-reaching effects, including the redrawing of some electoral districts.

In 1976, Martinez accepted an invitation from California Governor Jerry Brown to join that state's Board of Regents. She remained with the board until 1990, at one point serving a two-year term as chairman. From 1977 until 1981, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Martinez also was a member of an advisory board that reviewed appointments to ambassadorial positions around the world.

Martinez's personal life was equally busy during the 1970s. Early in the decade, she married a fellow attorney named Stuart Singer. They eventually had two sons, Carlos and Ricardo.

Entered Private Law Practice

In 1982, after spending nearly a decade at the helm of MALDEF, Martinez was ready to make a change. She stepped down from her position as president and considered a variety of options that included running for elected office or teaching law. She ultimately settled on a position with a prestigious Los Angeles law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson. In her new role, Martinez specialized in resolving labor disputes.

In addition to her work as an attorney, Martinez has been a popular speaker at educational institutions around the United States, including Harvard Law School, Yale University, the University of Notre Dame, and her alma mater, the University of Texas, which honored her with its distinguished alumnus award in 1988. Martinez has received a number of other awards and has been invited to sit on numerous civic and corporate boards, among them Shell Oil Company. She has also played an important role with the federal government as a consultant to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as a lawyer delegate to the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference.

Throughout her career, Martinez has been cited as proof that a person from humble beginnings can become a success. Even children have looked to her for inspiration as they deal with the many challenges of living in a diverse culture. For instance, in a 1997 essay contest sponsored by Project Wisdom, a nationwide program to encourage excellence in students (described online at, a seventh-grader named Shara of Bondy Intermediate School in Pasadena, Texas, tied for first place with her reflections on Martinez's approach to life. "…If more people had the same attitude as Vilma Martinez, " wrote Shara, "our country wouldn't have as many homeless, unemployed, or people financially aided by the government."

Further Reading

Coduye, Corinn, Vilma Martinez, Raintree/Steck Vaughan, 1989.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996, pp. 528-30.

Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale, 1993, pp. 261-263.

The Hispanic-American Almanac, Gale, 1993, p. 243.

"MALDEF: Background/Mission Statement, " (April 3, 1998).

"Presidential Records, 1973-1982, " Research Guide to the Records of the Mexican/American Legal Defense Fund, (April 3, 1998).

"Project Wisdom-Winning Essays, " Project Wisdom, (April 3, 1998).

"Vilma Martinez Elected to Shell Oil Company Board of Directors, " Shell Oil Company, (April 3, 1998).