Tony Gallegos of Pico Rivera, who has a long history of fighting for the civil rights of Latinos, was rewarded for his years of hard work recently when President Clinton appointed him acting chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
About 300 supporters, representing many of Los Angeles' Latino organizations, celebrated Gallegos' achievement as the first Latino to obtain that respected post at a reception last month at Stevens' Steak House in Commerce.
"There are people who have wisdom and a conscience and the courage to use that wisdom for good. Tony is one of those--not only for Hispanics but for all people," said Jerry Jaramillo, past state chairman of the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans organization.
Gallegos, 69, and a Democrat, is the longest serving member of the EEOC, having been appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Asked if he believed Clinton would name him to the job permanently, Gallegos answered: "That's strictly the President's call."
Gallegos began his activism in Pico Rivera in the 1950s, fighting for the rights of Mexican-Americans.
"He was one of the first voices who really started talking about the Hispanic community and the action that needed to be taken in the area of affirmative action," said Rogelio Padilla, who served as Gallegos' executive assistant during his first term as commissioner.
In 1960, Gallegos was one of the founders of the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, which continues to provide job training, child care and other services.
Later, the World War II veteran became active in the American GI Forum, becoming its national chairman. In 1977, he also helped launch Veterans in Community Services, a veterans and community service center.
Before joining the commission, Gallegos spent 30 years with McDonnell Douglas, seven as the aircraft company's equal employment opportunity manager. "I've worked on both sides of the issue," he said. "I will not tolerate discrimination in the workplace by anyone."
Local Latino leaders said that in Washington, Gallegos quickly understood how the system works and encouraged Latino groups to present their complaints to officials in Washington. Despite his busy schedule, Gallegos was always available to offer advice.
"If he can't solve the problem, he tries to direct people to those who can," said Ben Rodriguez, Gallegos' fellow activist in the GI Forum and now president of Veterans in Community Service.
Local Latino leaders said Gallegos had been a role model for them and encouraged them to get involved in Latino issues.
"Tony helped me get appointed to the National Task Force on Hispanic Affairs in the U.S. Senate," said Mark Rodriguez, and that was despite the fact that Rodriguez is a Republican and Gallegos a staunch Democrat. "He looks out for everyone."
Gallegos, who grew up in a small town in Colorado before moving to Pico Rivera in the '50s, is extremely proud of his Latino roots. Someone once approached him and referred to him as "the commissioner who is Hispanic." "No," Gallegos corrected him, "I'm the Hispanic who is a commissioner."