Antonia Hernandez, the embattled head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the nation's leading Latino civil rights group, won a showdown vote to keep her job Saturday in the internal power struggle that started with her surprise dismissal last month.
The group's board of directors voted 18 to 14 to retain Hernandez as its president and general counsel in a sometimes bitter 8 1/2-hour private meeting at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles. The action rescinded the decision in Dallas Jan. 17 by MALDEF's 15-member executive committee to dismiss Hernandez and replace her with former New Mexico Gov. Toney Anaya.
Turmoil had plagued the organization, founded in Texas in 1967, since Hernandez's dismissal. Her supporters and members of the executive committee traded emotional accusations publicly that observers said were uncharacteristic of the group.
Basis of Lawsuit
Hernandez decided to fight for her job, arguing that only the full board, not the committee, had the power to remove her. She also sued to keep the $62,000-a-year post, and a San Antonio judge ordered Saturday's meeting to resolve the matter.
Anaya, who said he did not seek the MALDEF post, tried to distance himself from the dispute, saying he was willing to serve the group in any way he could. He was at his Santa Fe, N.M., home, when he was informed of the board's decision.
After Saturday's vote, Hernandez and board Chairman Eric P. Serna, who had engineered her firing, did their best to bury their differences, telling reporters that they were prepared to move ahead with MALDEF's work as a court litigant for the rights of Latinos and the needy.
"We're going to proceed in a positive light," Serna said. "The organization will survive this dispute. We've had similar disputes in the past. . . . Perhaps MALDEF will be stronger because of this conflict."
Hernandez, who sat beside Serna during their remarks to reporters, also used the same approach. "I'm confident that whatever lack of communications with the chair (Serna) and I will be resolved," she said.
To underscore the unity that they sought, Hernandez said her contract as MALDEF's chief executive, which had been scheduled to expire in April, was extended to April, 1988, by the vote of the board.
The action, Hernandez said, was to dispel any doubts in the public's mind that the controversy "will continue."
The debate before the vote, observers reported, was mostly amicable. But there were signs that some wounds inflicted in the squabble will not be easily healed.
One member in favor of Hernandez's dismissal, Albert Zapanta of Dallas, angrily resigned from the board and stalked out of the meeting because of bitter disagreements surfacing during the session.
The power struggle was ignited when Serna announced at a Jan. 19 news conference in Los Angeles that Anaya would succeed the fired Hernandez, 38. At that time, he publicly refused to say why she was let go.
Insiders, however, said the executive committee, which meets quarterly to oversee the group's activities, had grown increasingly disenchanted with Hernandez's leadership since she was hired in August, 1985.
Some committee members were angry with Hernandez because she wrote a letter in support of the sale of Los Angeles television station KMEX and nine other Spanish-language stations to non-Latinos, insiders said.
Handling of Lawsuit
The bitterness surrounding the dispute spilled into public view when Serna, in a letter to MALDEF's 34 board members, said the real reason for Hernandez's firing was her alleged mishandling of a major job-discrimination class-action lawsuit against a major grocery chain in Texas.
He charged that she allowed the case against the H. E. Butt Grocery Co. to be botched largely because of her friendship with Los Angeles attorney Vilma Martinez, a former head of MALDEF who was hired by Butt as a consultant in the Texas case.
The charges outraged the two women, particularly Hernandez, who was described by friends as deeply hurt by the accusations.
Although Hernandez and MALDEF staff members involved in the Texas case refused to talk, MALDEF's vice president for legal programs, E. Richard Larson, wrote a seven-page letter defending MALDEF's role in settling the class-action issues out of court.
Larson pointed out that the organization's San Antonio lawyers had persuaded Butt officials to set up a $250,000 scholarship fund and an affirmative-action program that would lead to more management positions with the grocery chain for Latinos.
There was "only a slight chance of success" if the case had gone to trial, he said.
"I am totally convinced that the MALDEF attorneys . . . conducted the litigation professionally and ethically and were extraordinarily successful," Larson concluded.