‘Politics Of Patronage’ Examines How Megadonors Influenced Grassroots Activism For Latino Rights

In the 1960s, lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund wanted to provide legal services for activists. But the Ford Foundation put a stop to that.

By Kristen CabreraSeptember 30, 2021 3:27 pm, , ,

The 1960s were a time of profound political and social change in the United States. Many civil rights and racial justice organizations got their start at that time. So did benefactors looking to invest their money in forming an American society that aligned with their values.

But the relationship between these budding organizations and their benefactors was often complicated. Benjamin Márquez, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, explores this in his new book “The Politics of Patronage: Lawyers, Philanthropy, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.”

The original mission of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, was to provide legal assistance to Mexican Americans who were being treated unfairly under the law or whose constitutional rights were being violated. MALDEF lawyers had wanted to support causes like Chicanos fighting against police brutality, for example. But the Ford Foundation saw things differently, and urged the organization to focus on laying the groundwork for institutional changes instead of legal defense services for individuals.

Listen to the interview with Márquez above or read the transcript below to learn about the tension between MALDEF and the Ford Foundation, and how it shaped civil rights for Latinos in America.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: What was the original mission of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF? 

Benjamin Márquez: The organization was intended to be a legal reform organization, and that is, it was intended to expand and secure the constitutional rights that are basically guaranteed to everyone, but to make sure that they applied to Mexican Americans and, later, Latinos, equally. You know, the ultimate goal was equal treatment, equal justice before the law.

How would you characterize MALDEF’s success?

This is a really tough and complex question. It has done an outstanding job of articulating the issues of discrimination and racism facing the the Latino population. But one of the things that struck me when I was researching my book was that one, there were not very many scholarly articles and there weren’t any scholarly books written on the organization. So what I did was, I wanted to understand its origins, how it understood its mission and, rather, how the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic groups understood its mission. It was quite successful at that, and it did a very good job of standing up for the Latinx population later. But its success in the courts, now, that’s a really difficult question. And I was looking for a legal scholar that would have sat down and said, OK, here’s the record; what do we make of all of these decades of litigation? And that’s not an easy question to answer.

I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the Ford Foundation helped to seed MALDEF in the first place. I want to understand a little bit more how this dichotomy between the ideals of a grassroots organization and a megadonor affects political policy for Mexican Americans. Could you give us an example of how this clash may have affected or shaped policy?

I really like the way that one longtime MALDEF leader put it, and he said that MALDEF’s job was to clear the underbrush – that is, to remove discriminatory barriers so that politics could take over. And that was their job. They had the greatest successes with breaking down discriminatory voting schemes, especially in Texas, and, you know, using the Voting Rights Act before it was dissected by the Supreme Court. And they would go from town to town, county to county and say, look, these systems here just, you know, are designed to exclude Mexican Americans – or, when in places like Houston and Dallas, Blacks and Mexican Americans – and threatened to sue them. So this was one of their big, big changes and where they’ve had the most success.

And I think your question about representation and clashing with the grassroots, well, that’s also a complicated issue because Mexican Americans in Texas have a long history of advocating a number of approaches and tactics toward creating social change and, you know, working through the courts, assimilating and incorporating the Mexican American people in the way that white ethnics had been incorporated and assimilated in the first three decades of the 20th century. This was something that groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens, like the American GI Forum, they thought, this is great. So when you talk about representation and policy, this is this is exactly what they’ve been asking for for decades. The clash came with those who disagreed and who thought that social change would be brought about much more quickly and effectively through disruptive means. And that’s where the clash came during the 1960s when MALDEF was just getting off the ground. Chicano movement activists came to them and said, wait a minute, you’ve got to protect us; we’re getting beat up, we’re getting thrown in jail for for exercising our free speech rights. So you’ve got to be the legal arm of the community. And they had a different view of what community meant.

As you think about MALDEF’s origins, do you think that its founders would recognize the organization that it has become and its role on the American stage today?

The answer is yes – and with a qualified qualified yes. This was an organization that was created for legal reform. And those that objected – I talk about this in my book – some of the early board members, some of the early lawyers, really did feel that they should come to the rescue of demonstrators, of protesters, the hotheads in the streets. And they have every right to speak. But they were quickly disciplined by the Ford Foundation who told them, look, you’re not here to offer legal services; you’re here to advance the cause of legal reform, to lay the groundwork for an expansion of constitutional protection. That’s why you’re here. And some of those who objected, who were there from the beginning, who worked hand in hand with the Ford Foundation, I think were just of two minds. And I just, you know, many of the original members passed before I was able to interview them about this, but they wanted to do both. But their funders said, no, you’re not going to do both. You’re about creating equal opportunity and that’s all; you’re not here for legal defense. Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie officials were convinced that this was the path forward – the safe, the stable, the institutional path forward.

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