Hernández, Antonia

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Antonia Hernández

Born May 30, 1948

Torreón, Mexico

Lawyer and activist for Latino causes

"A solid education levels the playing field for everybody. It's the surest provider of equal opportunity."

A ntonia Hernández has drawn on her experience as an immigrant to forge a career protecting and expanding the rights and opportunities of Latinos. She learned to speak English while attending school as a young girl; as a teenager, she spent summers picking crops; and she survived in tough East Los Angeles. "I grew up in a very happy environment but a very poor environment," she told Parents magazine. She became a lawyer and for eighteen years she was president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). Working to support bilingual education and challenging anti-immigrant laws are among the many activist causes Hernández has pursued.

Life experience breeds activism

Antonia Hernández was born on May 30, 1948, on a ranch near the town of Torreón in northern Mexico. She was the eldest of six children. Her father, Manuel, was born in the United States and often traveled back and forth between Mexico and the United States wherever work was available. Her mother, Nicolasa, raised the children and took odd jobs whenever possible. The family left Mexico in 1956 and settled in east Los Angeles.

Hernández's life experiences prepared her for her role as an activist for Latino causes. She learned to speak English through what she calls the "sink or swim method"—learn to speak English or fail in school. As an adult, she has been a supporter of bilingual education, in which two languages, the child's original language and a new one to be learned, are used in class. Another influence was the example of her father: He described to her how he was one of many American-born Latinos deported to Mexico for no reason during anti-Mexican immigrant hostilities in Texas of the 1930s. Hernández would later campaign against laws in California that threatened or denied rights to recent immigrants. Hernández also had firsthand experience as a migrant worker (a worker who moves from farm to farm, picking crops quickly while they are ripe)—her family often spent summers in the hot, San Joaquin Valley as crop pickers. Among other activities to earn money for the family, Hernández helped sell her mother's homemade tamales (steamed cornmeal dough with filling) in the neighborhood.

In 1998, Hernández told the Los Angeles Times, "I strongly believe it is important to find a way of transitioning students from their native language to English…. 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."

The Value of Speaking Two Languages

Hernández had to learn to speak English or fail in school. She later became an effective advocate, or supporter, of bilingual education. "I made it. But just because I made it cannot be used as an example that it works," she told the Los Angeles Daily Journal. "I say, 'Don't look at me, look at all those who didn't make it.' Because you're not judged by whether you made it, whether the minority made it. You're judged by whether the majority makes it."

By the time Hernández finished high school in the mid-1960s, she was already involved in activist causes for Latinos. Intending to be the first in her family to graduate from college, Hernández enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She graduated in 1970, then continued on at UCLA for a degree in law, which she received in 1974. Meanwhile, she worked at a branch of the California Rural Legal Assistance Office where she helped address the needs of migrant farm workers. It was there, in 1973, that she met her future husband, Michael Stern, who would become a civil rights attorney. Following Hernández's example, all her brothers and sisters earned college degrees; several became teachers.

After completing her law degree, Hernandez worked for nonprofit organizations, including the Legal Aid Corporation. As a legal aid counselor, she realized that "we couldn't help the kids or teachers unless we did something about the laws that were holding them back," Hernández told Parents magazine. She began seeking more active roles to fight such laws.

Meanwhile, Stern began working in the federal Public Defender's Office as a court-appointed lawyer for people who could not afford to pay for one. Hernández and Stern were married in 1977 and would have three children.

To Washington and back

An opportunity for a more high-profile use of her legal background came in 1979, when Hernández was recruited to become a staff counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. She moved to Washington, D.C. In her role as staff counsel, Hernández was responsible for carefully wording bills, or documents that Congress debates and votes on, created by senators. She also conducted research and provided information to senators on the committee, especially on immigration and human-rights issues. In 1980, she took a brief leave of absence to work in the Southwest on the campaign of U.S. senator Ted Kennedy (1932–) of Massachusetts for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 1981, Hernández began working for MALDEF as the staff lawyer in its Washington, D.C., office. Two years later, she returned to Los Angeles to serve as the legal affairs director in MALDEF's office on the west coast. She campaigned for greater opportunities for Latinos in federal employment and promoted affirmative action in private- and public-sector jobs. (Affirmative action is a policy for hiring people for jobs based on skill and ethnic or racial characteristics so that the percentage of workers in an organization reflects the ethnic or racial makeup of the larger population.) Also during this time, MALDEF initiated several lawsuits on behalf of bilingual workers whose ability to speak a second language was a part of their jobs. They were being paid for their physical work but not for use of their language skills, which were necessary for success.

While working for MALDEF in 1983, Hernández also served as an attorney for the East Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice. She was a defense lawyer on criminal and civil cases, including several involving charges of police brutality. The next year, Hernández became directing attorney of the Lincoln Heights office for the Legal Aid Foundation. She led a staff of six attorneys, took part in case litigation, or preparing a case for court, and fought for bills in the state legislature.

Becomes president of MALDEF

Hernández became president of MALDEF in 1985, including its regional offices in San Francisco, California; San Antonio, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Washington, D.C. She defined her mission: "to ensure that all Latinos are given the opportunity to participate fully in our society." She directed and managed a $5.2 million budget and a seventy-five-person staff.

The Value of Education

In an interview with Civil Rights Journal (Fall 1998), Antonia Hernández talked about the value of education:

Without an educated Latino community, our dramatic increase as a percentage of the U.S. population is not going to result in policies that improve our lives as Americans. Wasn't it [author] George Orwell who said, "To be political, you first have to be well informed?" A solid education levels the playing field for everybody. It's the surest provider of equal opportunity.

During Hernández 's tenure at MALDEF, the organization fought for many causes. In Texas, for example, MALDEF was successful in a court ruling that the Texas legislature had the authority to require wealthier districts to share their wealth with poor districts to create an educational system that provides fair opportunity to all children. In California, Hernández led MALDEF in defeating Proposition 187 in court. The proposition, or proposed law, was passed by California voters to restrict immigration. Through Hernández's leadership, MALDEF helped defeat an immigration bill in the California legislature that would have required Latinos to carry identification cards. MALDEF argued successfully that only the federal government had exclusive power to regulate immigration.

Nationally, MALDEF actively encouraged Latinos to participate in the 1990 and 2000 national census. Following the national census each decade, states can revise their districts, the areas represented by a member of the U.S. Congress. The organization ensured that districts with large Latino populations would have a strong political voice.

After Los Angeles was wracked by riots in 1992, Mayor Tom Bradley (1917–1998) appointed Hernández to the "Rebuild L.A." commission to lead revitalization efforts. Hernández recruited many Latinos to participate in community service to help improve the city.

In 1996, Hernández received the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award. She also worked actively in the community by serving on governing boards for such programs as California Tomorrow, the Quality Education for Minorities Network; California Leadership; the Latino Museum of History, Art, and Culture; and Los Angeles 2000.


In December 2003, Hernández resigned from her position as president of MALDEF. She had been with the organization for over twenty-two years, eighteen of them as president. Hernández moved on to become president and chief executive officer of the California Community Foundation in February 2004. "My life's work has been dedicated to making sure everyone has a place at the table," said Hernandez upon leaving, "and I am proud of the progress we have made through MALDEF. Only a rare opportunity like this one that allows me to forge new paths and serve the Los Angeles community in new ways could draw me away."

Begun in 1915, the California Community Foundation partners with its donors to provide funds for nonprofit organizations and public institutions for health and human services, affordable housing, early childhood education, community arts and culture, and other areas of need. Hernández will remain busy with the Foundation and her many other endeavors, which includes membership on the board of trustees for the Rockefeller Foundation, for which she is chairperson and auditor, or financial examiner, of the budget committee that oversees grants of $500 million annually; other national and local boards of such institutions as Harvard University and UCLA; and frequent speaking engagements.

As noted on the La Prensa San Diego Web site, Henry Cisneros (1947–), secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001), summed up Hernández's efforts: "Few members of our society have contributed what Antonia has contributed to the Latino community. The progress that the Latino community has made over the last twenty years has depended on a legal and civic foundation. And more than any other person Antonia Hernández has been responsible for creating the conditions that are leading to the progress that Latinos are making today. Her courageous and farsighted leadership has paved the way for Latinos to take their place in American society."

—Roger Matuz

For More Information


"Antonia Hernández: A Voice for Latinos" (interview). Migration World Magazine (September 1999): pp. 51–6.

"Antonia Hernández: The Leading Latina Legal Eagle for Civil Rights." Civil Rights Journal (Fall 1998): p. 14.

Chiang, Harriet. "Profile. Antonia Hernández: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund President." Los Angeles Times (August 5, 1985): p. 1.

Groller, Ingrid. "Law in the Family." Parents (March 1985): pp. 96–101.

Gross, Liza. "Antonia Hernández: MALDEF's Legal Eagle Hispanic." Hispanic (December 1990): pp. 16–18.

Valsamis, Liz. "Barrier Language. Latina Attorney Antonia Hernández Works for Latino Legal Rights." Los Angeles Daily Journal (April 23, 2001): p. S20.

Web Sites

"Antonia Hernández." California Community Foundation.http://www.calfund.org/3/staff_hernandez.php (accessed on March 15, 2004).

"MALDEF Board Announces the Departure of Longtime President Antonia Hernández." La Prensa San Diego.http://www.laprensa-sandiego.org/archieve/december05-03/maldef.htm (accessed on March 15, 2004).

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