Civil rights pioneer Mario Guerra Obledo passed away on August 18 in Sacramento at the age of 78.
Known as the “godfather of the Latino movement,” he dedicated his life to securing the rights of Latinos and making sure they were represented in society. Despite being born into a life of poverty, he pursued an education, eventually earning a law degree. In 1968 he co-founded the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the leading Latino civil rights organization. MALDEF has been successful in getting businesses to take down signs barring Mexicans from entering, as well as lobbying for school desegregation and reform in jury selection.
In 1974 Obledo became the first Latino chief of a California state agency when he was appointed Secretary of Health and Welfare. He also co-founded the Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, and served as leader of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Rainbow Coalition.
He continued his activism in the nineties as he lead a boycott against Taco Bell for its use of a chihuahua with a stereotypical Mexican accent in its ads, in addition to protesting cutbacks in bilingual education. In 1998 President Clinton awarded Obledo the Presidential Medal of Freedom, describing him as having “created a powerful chorus for justice and equality.”
Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel, issued a statement in honor of Obledo’s death. “Every Latino living in this country owes Mario Obledo a tremendous debt of gratitude. The loss of an icon like Mario Obledo is always poignant, and its effects are long-lasting. Even more long-lasting is the legacy of a leader like Mario Obledo, whose causes live on, reinforced and immeasurably strengthened by his tremendous life of activism.”
Memorials are set for this week in Sacramento, with a funeral Mass on Friday. Obledo is survived by his wife Keda Alcala-Obledo, six children and four granddaughters.