The 1975 expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act impacted millions of Mexican Americans in the Southwest. But the idea began with just one man who wanted to help his community and make his parents proud.
Abelardo Perez was born on Feb. 20, 1943, in Brownsville, Texas, at the southernmost tip of Texas on the border with Mexico. His parents, Juan and Francisca Perez, had no formal education and spoke limited English, even though they were both second-generation native Texans. His father was a laborer, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom who cared for their 11 children. Abelardo was the ninth-born.
In notes provided after the interview, Perez said that for most of his childhood, his father was being treated for leprosy in Louisiana, The elder Perez apparently contracted the disease from contact with foreign workers while unloading ships at the port.
Perez did well in school, skipping the fifth grade. He graduated from Brownsville High School in 1961 and then served four years in the Navy before attending the University of Houston. He earned a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1968, went to graduate school and earned a law degree from George Washington University Law School in 1972. He got a full scholarship.
At GWU, he was active in groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American GI Forum. His education played a key role in his understanding of the issues that Mexican Americans faced when voting.
“There were all kinds of mechanisms by which the political forces in Texas and the Southwest were doing things that either diluted our vote, or prevented us from voting,” Perez said.
After law school, Perez achieved great success working for various government agencies before joining the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1974 as regional counsel in Washington, D.C.
Around that time, the federal Voting Rights Act, which Congress had passed in 1965, was up for renewal. A friend who worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights asked Perez to see what he could do to expand the reach of the act to southwestern jurisdictions. The act focused primarily on eliminating voting barriers for African Americans in the South. Expanding its coverage would be a big challenge, including establishing MALDEF as a voice among the national civil rights organizations that "orchestrated the civil rights agenda," he said.
Perez was undeterred.
“I recognized some of the electoral blocks that blacks faced in the South as some of the electoral blocks that we had in Texas,” Perez said. “I looked up some of the material on the Voting Rights Act, and I figured that it would be something really good for our community in the Southwest.”
His parents’ experiences as Mexican-Americans in the Southwest also inspired him.
“I come from a very poor family in one of the poorest counties in South Texas,” Perez said. “Although my parents were born in the United States, they were monolingual in Spanish. They were having difficulty reading the ballot, particularly referenda that were being passed in the county or city there.”
He set about expanding the Voting Rights Act to cover Mexican-Americans. The first step was convincing his boss, Vilma Martinez, president of MALDEF at that time. Martinez supported Perez’s idea but worried that lobbying for legislation, rather than fighting in the courts, would jeopardize MALDEF’S tax-exempt status. Such organizations are prohibited from lobbying. Perez needed to make sure that MALDEF would act within the law.
"She finally said, 'Fine, let's do it,'" Perez recalled. "And we got the ball rolling."
Perez set about assembling a team that would work to expand the act, find sponsors for the legislation and mobilize congressional support. With Martinez's blessing, he first approached Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C., one of the country's largest legal firms. Perez had interned there while in law school, and knew the firm provided pro bono legal services. He approached David Tatel, a partner at the firm, and told him about his plans. Tatel assigned Thomas Reston, a young lawyer from Virginia, to the case. Over time, they worked with dozens of others, including MALDEF attorneys in the Southwest.
Then the confronted the difficult task of gathering evidence of voter discrimination. Perez and MALDEF partnered with other Mexican-American organizations and collected testimony from people in the Southwest.
“Historians argue that the Voting Rights Act is the most effective civil rights legislation ever enacted,” Perez said. “Therefore, bringing the act to our community was extremely important.”
The key focus of the expansion campaign was on Sections 4 and 5 of the original act. Section 5 requires that jurisdictions with a history of discrimination against minorities get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes involving registration and voting. Section 4 spells out a formula to determine what jurisdictions would be subject to Section 5.
Perez’s goal in 1975 was to expand the law to cover southwestern states with large Mexican-American populations, such as Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico.
To expand the act, the MALDEF attorneys needed to amend Section 4, establishing that states had a “test or device" that prohibited Mexican Americans from voting.
To describe the voters who were being blocked from voting, they used the term "language minorities.”
At the time, the Census didn't specifically count Mexican-Americans, but it did count Spanish-language speakers, meaning the plaintiffs could find data to support their arguments.
The term also encompassed other ethnic minorities, such as Asian Americans, and the language obstacles they faced when trying to vote.
“We were arguing that people who spoke no English, or limited English, had difficulty really participating in the electoral process because the ballots were in English,” Perez said.
"There was an Asian group that also wanted to get involved," Perez said. "So the law could not just say 'Mexican American' because it was too specific."
The situation had been different in 1965: In the South, African Americans faced not only literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation by voting officials. They also faced violence at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and some law enforcement officials. These often deadly acts of violence were broadcast on television in the 1960s, creating widespread public sympathy for Americans who wanted only to exercise their civil rights.
Perez said Mexican Americans faced obstacles such as “economic coercion” and intimidation. Modesto Rodriguez, a farmer from Pearsall, Texas, about 50 miles south of San Antonio, testified that after he began to register Mexican-American voters in his town, a bank retaliated by calling in a loan for his farm.
“Whether or not we had specific evidence of violence, the effect is the same: You are denying people the right to vote, or you're diluting their vote or preventing them from voting,” Perez said.
Perez and MALDEF heard concerns from black legislators who feared that African Americans could lose coverage with the expansion of the act. But Perez countered that the main issue was expanding civil rights for another marginalized group.
After months of planning, meetings and hearings, Congress expanded the act and extended it to include a section, which says that in jurisdictions where more than 10,000 (or over 5 percent) of voters are members of a single minority language group, ballots can be printed in their language.
“I'm glad that a lot of the egregious voting practices against Mexican Americans were being looked over the shoulder by the Department of Justice,” Perez said.
Perez later worked for the U.S. State Department as a diplomat in South America and Europe before retiring in 2005. Perez said his work for the State Department was affected by the expansion of the Voting Rights Act because it made him a better leader and professional.
When Perez reflects on the act, he thinks of how instrumental his parents were in the process. “My parents were alive then, but they are dead now,” he said. “The idea that they were getting ballots in Spanish because of my work was very, very rewarding.”
He married Carol Beth Infante in 1975. They have three children: Michael, Caroline and Marisa.