By Carlos Devora
From working as a lawyer to serving as president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to being appointed ambassador to Argentina, Vilma Martinez has been a trailblazer.
Her work has helped bring down discriminatory laws and expand the political power of Latinos.
She has accomplished this even in the face of racial and gender discrimination.
“I was told, ‘You shouldn’t go to the academic high school, not going to get into college, don’t get your hopes up about law school,’” Martinez said. “At law school, I was told women could not be litigators; a Mexican-American woman should not be head of a Mexican-American organization. I mean all of these times when you’re told, ‘You can’t do this’ and my response is, ‘We’ll see.’”
Born in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 17, 1943, Vilma Martinez was the oldest of five children of Marina and Salvador Martinez. Her ambition and determination were clear from an early age. So was the discouragement.
“I used to tell my father that I was going to college and law school and his response was, ‘You’ll never make it, you’re going to get married, you’re going to have children,’” Martinez said.
But in his own way, her father helped her. For instance, one summer when she was 15 years old, Martinez worked as an intern in the office of well-known lawyer Alonso Perales, to whom her father had introduced her. That’s when Martinez realized that she also wanted to become a lawyer.
“There was this beautiful young woman who was widowed,” Martinez recounted. “She was from Nicaragua and her husband had died in a crop-dusting plane crash, and she was trying to pull herself together, find a way back home. [Perales] did all of the requisite paperwork to enable her to do that and I thought, ‘Gee, it’s really impressive what lawyers can do. I definitely want to be a lawyer.’”
But her father, a construction worker, did not take her goals as seriously as she did.
“I used to argue with him, but one day I decided that there is no point in arguing. I just need to do it and so I did. I went to the University of Texas at Austin,” Martinez said. “At that time, it was very affordable. I had saved all of my baby-sitting money and I came here, I got my degree and took the diploma to my father. I said, ‘Dad, here it is, so you see that I made it and I don’t want you to ever tell me that I can’t make it.’ And he just smiled and kept it until the day he died.”
She later came to understand why he did not appear to support her ambitions.
“Looking back, I recognize that he felt like he had not had all of the opportunities that he deserved, and in some ways earned, because of discrimination against Mexican Americans. And I think what he was really trying to do was to protect me from failure,” Martinez said.
Martinez was determined to go to law school but worried she would not be accepted at UT. A professor who was a mentor encouraged her to apply to “one of those liberal East Coast schools,” so she applied to Columbia Law School. She earned her law degree there in 1967.
Her long career as a civil rights advocate began when she went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, where she helped on issues such as school desegregation and public accommodation. She was part of the team that represented the petitioner in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Griggs v. Duke Power. The 1971 court decision helped establish the doctrine of affirmative action in employment.
Martinez’s commitment to civil rights arose from her own experience growing up in San Antonio, “that was in many ways racist.” Discrimination was both obvious - some parks were off-limits to Latinos, for example - and subtle.
“I was in second or third grade, and one of my teachers who had been very kind to me was introducing me to a teacher who would be my teacher at the next grade level. And she said ‘This is Vilma –’ and then she paused and I thought, ‘Well, what is she going to say about me?’ -- and she said, ‘She is Spanish and she’s very bright,’” Martinez remembers. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m not Spanish. I’m Mexican-American.’ And I thought, ‘Why would she feel being Mexican-American was not good?’”
The experience made clear to her that society did not value Mexican Americans. But it did not affect the pride she had for her culture.
In 1973, Martinez was chosen as president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the first woman to hold that role. She was just 29, and the 5-year-old organization was in poor financial shape. Under her leadership, MALDEF developed a more robust fund-raising strategy, and it began to have major impact with its advocacy.
During her presidency, MALDEF fought a Texas law that banned the use of public money to pay for the education of undocumented immigrants. In 1982, the Supreme Court declared the law to be unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause and also struck down a Tyler Independent School District requirement that those immigrant parents – many of them poor farm workers -- had to pay $1,000 a year if they wanted their children to attend school. The case was Plyler v. Doe.
MALDEF also played an important role in the passage of the federal 1975 Voting Rights Act, which extended protections to Hispanics, who were not covered under the landmark 1965 law.
She especially recalled her work lobbying the U.S. Census Bureau to add a question about Hispanic origin to census forms, starting in 1980. It was the bureau’s first attempt to measure the size of nation’s Latino population.
Martinez has also worked in private law practices, with a focus on labor law, and has served on major corporate boards, among them Anheuser-Busch, Fluor Corp., and Shell Oil.
She became involved in the diplomatic corps under President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 named her to a board that advises presidents on potential ambassador candidates. In 2009, President Barack Obama named her ambassador to Argentina, the first woman in that post. She served until 2013.
Time and again, she broke down barriers that blocked opportunity for women.
“Did I ever get mistaken for the secretary instead of a lawyer going into the courthouse? Absolutely. And did my idea get credited to a male colleague on the board? Absolutely,” Martinez said. “But (you) have to pick your fights. I’m not against fighting, but over the years, you have to be picky about which ones you do pick.”
Ms. Martinez was interviewed by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez on April 28, 2016, in Austin Texas.