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Leader of Rights Group Is Confident in Combat

April 18, 1991|RICK HOLGUIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Antonia Hernandez was studying to be a history professor, history took a turn and later changed her plans.

Hundreds of Latino students at four East Los Angeles high schools boycotted classes in 1968 to press for educational reforms. There were arrests during the so-called "blowouts" that marked the start of an era of Latino student activism in Los Angeles.

In 1971, Hernandez was teaching Latino students in a special program that had been created as a result of the "blowouts." One day, some of her students did not show up for class. They had gotten into trouble with the law for their activism.

Hernandez quickly decided to enroll in law school at UCLA. "It was one of those frustrating moments," Hernandez said. "I decided I'm going to be a lawyer to change the laws to make this a better place to live."

Two decades later, Hernandez is president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a leading Latino civil rights organization.

Talkative and engaging, Hernandez leads with an informal style and does not stand on ceremony. She and her staff can often be found conferring around a table at a small Mexican restaurant called Mi Tierra across the street from MALDEF's Spring Street headquarters downtown.

Hernandez, 42, has gained a reputation as a tireless and hard-driving administrator since she was named to head MALDEF in 1985. "Her strength and her effectiveness and her productivity rest in her persistence," said Dionicio Morales, president of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation in Los Angeles.

Like her organization, Hernandez is comfortable in combat.

Flash back to 1987, when MALDEF's executive committee abruptly fired her, contending that she had mishandled a case and questioning her leadership skills. Hernandez denied any wrongdoing and sued the executive committee. Newspapers carried the story. She was reinstated six weeks later and the lawsuit was dropped.

"They insulted me in public, and I had to fight back," Hernandez said.

Hernandez often recalls the words of her father, who taught her to serve the public and to view the world with a critical eye. "My father would say blind loyalty to anything is not something to be proud of," said Hernandez, a mother of three who is married to another lawyer, Michael Stern.

Hernandez also is driven by her experiences as an immigrant.

She was born in Mexico and spent her early years on an ejido, or communal ranch, near Torreon, in the north-central state of Coahuila.

"We were materially poor but not deprived," she said.

The Hernandez family moved across the border into New Mexico and later settled into the Maravilla housing project in East Los Angeles.

From the time she was about 9 through her teen-age years, Hernandez spent four to six weeks each summer picking cotton and other crops in the San Joaquin Valley fields to help her family make ends meet.

Education was important to the Hernandez family. Antonia graduated from Garfield High and she attended East Los Angeles College. She earned her undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA.

Hernandez remembers some of the youths from the projects who never beat the odds to attend college. The Maravilla project, with its gang activity, was one of the roughest in the area.

"I saw my friends being wasted as talented resources for reasons not of their making," she said.

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