Chicano Advocacy Group Is Signaling a Lane Change

With a new president, MALDEF could be shifting its primary focus from the political to the economic.

By Gregory Rodriguez
Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at New America Foundation.

April 18, 2004

Thirty years ago, Ann Marie Tallman, a monolingual, Iowa-born Mexican-German American with a background in corporate finance, never would have been named president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. MALDEF was founded in 1968, in the heady days of the Chicano movement when young activists were narrowly defining the ethnic and ideological boundaries of Mexican American identity. Although MALDEF evolved into a mainstream organization, the Mexican American civil rights movement never fully broke with its 1960s ideological inheritance. But naming Tallman head of the nation's premier Latino civil rights group signifies that the Chicano nationalist moment is officially over. Mexican American identity has left the barrio.

As recently as a few years ago, Tallman's ethnic — and ideological — credentials would have been easy prey for activists. She was too young and grew up much too far away from the barrios of the Southwest to have been influenced politically by the campus Third World movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For her, events like the Chicano Blowouts of 1968 or the Moratorium of 1971 have no greater resonance than a history book. As a third-generation Mexican American, the U.S.-born child of a U.S.-born mother, she is not particularly close to the immigrant experience either. On her father's side, her family dates its arrival in America to the 1700s. Her mother's parents, natives of Michoacán and Nuevo León, emigrated in the late 1920s.

Nor has Tallman, former senior vice president at Fannie Mae, been a professional activist. Her advocacy work came mostly on a volunteer basis while she built a corporate resume. As she puts it, she brings a diversified "skill set" to her new job, something few Latinas could have boasted of a generation ago.

MALDEF as an organization seems primed for a leader like Tallman. "You can't effect change unless you're part of [elite institutions]," former MALDEF President Antonia Hernández said at Brown University in 2001. The organization's top lawyers tend to come from the nation's most blue-blooded universities, and, not surprisingly, they tend to live upper-middle class, ethnically integrated suburban lives. MALDEF receives funding from such corporate giants as Shell Oil, Bank of America and Ford Motor Co., and its headquarters is called the MALDEF Anheuser-Busch Nonprofit Support Center.

Within the last decade, the definition of what it means to be Mexican American has broadened. Rising ethnic confidence has knocked down the most confining notions of authenticity. Mexican Americans increasingly realize that they are a heterogeneous population. The burgeoning Latino middle class, opportunities created by civil rights victories and the growing diversity of U.S. society have also changed the terms of the debate over Latino civil rights. Mexican-Anglo relations are far more complex than they once were.

MALDEF's announcement of Tallman's appointment acknowledged this progress. The new president agrees, saying, "Latinos are very well positioned in terms of political and economic might." As a result, she hints that the organization may shift its primary focus from political to economic. The time may be right.

Two years ago, MALDEF suffered a major setback when it lost its challenge to a redistricting plan approved by the California Legislature in 2001. Employing the same strategy used a generation ago for African American voters in the segregated South, MALDEF attorneys contended that two Southern California congressional districts were drawn with the intention of depriving Latinos a fair opportunity to elect "representatives of their choice." But a panel of three federal judges disagreed, ruling that "California's political system is far from closed to Latinos," and that the contemporary record painted a "far more encouraging picture of racial voting attitudes" than it did a decade before. MALDEF appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the decision.

In a sense, MALDEF had become a victim of its own success in opening up the political arena to Latino participation. Long identified with the struggle for political representation, the organization's purpose suddenly seemed unclear. Ironically, progress may lead MALDEF to become more like the Mexican American organizations of old.

Historically, ethnic Mexican organizations, like those of other ethnic Americans, have served two purposes — self-defense and self-help. But the leading contemporary Latino organizations, all founded in the 1960s, have emphasized the former. A shift to economic empowerment and bringing down discriminatory barriers to credit and financing could help Latinos, particularly immigrants, help themselves. Wary of divulging her agenda, Tallman simply speaks of the importance of "striking a balance" between legal work and policy advocacy.

Before the struggle for civil rights became entangled with 1960s ethnic nationalism, Mexican American organizations were distinguished by their inclusiveness. In its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, the League of United Latin American Citizens balanced ethnic pride with a receptivity to Anglo American culture. In the 1920s, La Alianza Hispanoamericana, a mutual-aid society founded in 1894, was criticized for having too many Anglos on its board. Even in late 19th century L.A., ethnic Mexican groups were remarkably open to Anglo involvement. In 1875, James Hayes was elected to the board of La Sociedad Hispano-Americana. John Kays later became board secretary. Similarly, A.R. Roth was treasurer of La Junta Patriótica Mexicana, and C.M. Forester was an officer in El Club Filharmónico Mexicano.

MALDEF has always been in the tradition of integrationist ethnic-Mexican organizations. But by picking an ethnically mixed president with a limited connection to the iconography of the Chicano movement, the organization may have severed the generation-old connection between civil rights and ethnic nationalism. Tallman has an opportunity to move beyond the 1960s and stamp the post-baby boom generation's experience onto the Latino advocacy establishment. If she's effective, the Chicano movement may start to look like the exception, rather than the rule in Mexican American history.