The Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Stanford University Libraries is pleased to announce that it has successfully completed a CLIR Hidden Collections grant project—Documenting Mexican American and Latino Civil Rights: Records of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA). This project has been one of the largest and most ambitious processing efforts ever undertaken by Special Collections. In the course of the two-year grant, the project team processed 2045 linear feet of MALDEF records and 406 linear feet of CRLA records. Access to these rich collections will give scholars from a wide range of disciplines a major resource for analyzing the civil rights struggles faced by Mexican Americans in the mid-to-late-20th century and will further establish Stanford’s Department of Special Collections as one of the most significant repositories containing collections that document all aspects of the Mexican American and Latino experience.
The MALDEF records processed during the course of this grant project were added as addenda to the 1200 linear feet of records processed and opened for research in the mid-1990s. Founded in 1967, MALDEF has evolved into one of the most influential and effective civil rights organizations focused on defining and protecting the rights of Mexican Americans throughout the United States. The newly available records, which extend the scope of the collection through circa 2000, document MALDEF’s development under the leadership of Presidents Joaquin Avila and Antonia Hernández. During this period, MALDEF continued pursuing strategic advocacy programs related to employment, immigrants’ rights, education, and language rights, with a particular emphasis on increasing political access and representation for Mexican Americans. The collection contains administrative records, special program files, and litigation files focusing on such issues as employment discrimination, education rights, voting rights, and other related civil rights issues.
Highlights form the litigation records include an extensive set of files from the International Molders’ Union v. Nelson case—a landmark case in which MALDEF represented a class of Latino workers in the Bay Area who were victims of workplace raids by the INS. The case ended with the trial court holding that the open-ended warrants the INS was using to search workplaces suspected of employing undocumented immigrants were unconstitutional, and found that the INS had instituted a systematic policy of Fourth Amendment violations, including unlawful detention, unreasonable force, and discrimination against Latinos. Other litigation highlights include extensive case files documenting MALDEF’s efforts to improve education rights, including Edgewood v. Kirby, a case relating to public school financing and educational equality. Significant special project files from this period document MALDEF’s work monitoring the impact of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), changes to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), as well as the development of its ambitious program to encourage Latino participation in the 1990 U.S. Census.
The CRLA records, now open for research, contain administrative files, litigation files, and special program and subject files, dating from the founding of the organization in 1966 through circa 2000. Material in the collection documents CRLA’s ongoing work to provide legal aid to farmworkers and the rural poor in California. Also included in the collection are numerous files related to CRLA’s development and survival as an organization. The controversies surrounding the organization’s funding and monitoring by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)—including Reagan’s 1970 veto of funding—are particularly well documented.
As one of the original “War on Poverty” programs, CRLA was nationally renowned for pursuing high-impact class action lawsuits that benefitted millions of low-income people in California and nationally until 1996 when congress prohibited federally-funded legal services from participating in class-action litigation. Today, CRLA continues to assist individual clients and communities through alternative forms of litigation, remaining steadfastly committed to advocating for the rural poor as a class in order to address the root causes of poverty. To achieve this goal, CRLA has developed an effective organizational structure, with a central administrative office in San Francisco as well as numerous regional branch offices located near rural communities within California. Regional offices allow CRLA to make its services available to clients where they live, while the central office is able to direct priorities for the organization as a whole.
CRLA has traditionally focused its advocacy efforts around a set of strategic priority areas, including employment, housing, education, immigration, civil rights, health, and environmental safety. The organization has achieved legal success in all these areas. For example, an early CRLA advocacy effort led by Ralph S. Abascal—who joined CRLA as a staff attorney in 1968 and later became CRLA General Counsel for over twenty years—resulted in the eventual banning of DDT and other pesticides in the early 1970s. Other examples of successful litigation include Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety (1975), a case that CRLA argued in the California Supreme Court and that led to the banning of EI Corito, the crippling short-handled hoe. Other notable CRLA victories include securing the addition of the Special Agricultural Worker provision to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The provision allowed a million undocumented workers to become legalized. CRLA went on to litigate two of three “late amnesty cases” filed in the federal courts in California against the INS for its misadministration of IRCA: Catholic Social Services (CCS) v. Meese (1986) and Zambrano v. INS (1988). During litigation that spanned over twenty years, the CCS case was argued at all levels of the federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Together the MALDEF and CRLA records represent an important new resource documenting the development of organizations working to combat discrimination against Mexican Americans and Latinos in California and throughout the United States. Finding aids for the MALDEF and CRLA records, which contain detailed listings of the collections’ content, are now posted on the Online Archive of California and can also be accessed via the collection catalog records available through Stanford Libraries’ online catalog.