The revolution started by Joaquín Ávila, the Compton-raised son of a foundry worker, continues into the 21st century some four decades after the Harvard-educated attorney launched a Latino voting rights career that included two, U.S. Supreme Court victories.
That Ávila – who died last month at his home in Shoreline, Washington, at the age of 69 – wielded political clout despite never running for office underscores how a wily attorney well versed in the U.S. Voting Rights Act can make a lasting impact in Latino politics.
“Joaquín changed the political landscape of the United States and made it possible for Latinos to participate in electoral politics,” said former Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) president/general counsel Antonia Hernández in a statement.
While known mostly for his work in Monterey County, Ávila’s efforts opened the doors to more Latino-elected officials in the San Joaquín Valley.
He and his supporters basically argued that at-large voting districts violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they denied Latino residents proper political representation.
The Tulare County city of Dinuba was among the first to be forced to go to district elections. Ávila argued in a lawsuit that Dinuba’s at-large voting system discriminated against Latino residents, who made up 60 percent of the Tulare County city’s population.
Latino historian Armando Navarro said that because of the Dinuba voting rights win, 61 school districts between Bakersfield and Stockton switched from at-large to district elections.
In 2008, a court invalidated the Madera Unified School District board elections and imposed a district-based election system after finding that only one Latino was serving on a seven-member board of a district with 82 percent Latino enrollment. Only one other Latino had sat on the board in the previous 25 years.
Today, the Madera school district has four Latino members.
The City of Madera has also gone to district elections, and has an elected Latino as mayor.
Visalia began district elections in 2016.
Porterville will have district elections starting this year.
I worked for 10 years in Modesto, during which time I wrote a story that detailed how the entire city council lived within a concentrated area. The thinking then by the councilmembers was that that at-large system was better because each member took into account the well-being of the entire city.
A quarter-century later, the City of Modesto lost a voting rights lawsuit and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The city lost the case, and had to dole out $3 million in attorneys’ fees. Ávila was one of the lawyers involved in the case.
We doubt much of these vital changes had been possible without Ávila’s pioneering work.
That, however, is only the start of an effort that continues to these days.
Last month, Kern County lost a court case in how it determines voting district. U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd approved new boundaries as part of a settlement of a 2016 lawsuit by MALDEF after agreeing that “Latino voters in Kern County have been deprived of an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.”
County supervisors approved the new boundaries this month for a county whose population is 49 percent Latino.
The Dolores Huerta Foundation, which worked with MALDEF in the Kern County lawsuit, is now looking at Tulare County. The county, with a Latino population of 64.1 percent, has had only one Latino (Lali Moheno) on the five-member board. She was appointed to the position by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, then was defeated at the ballot box.
Ávila advocated for minority representation on boards, councils and other elected government bodies. Having their voices at the decision-making levels, he argued, “makes the elected body more sensitive to the particularized needs of the minority community.”
Ávila continues to be right.
Juan Esparza Loera has been editor of Vida en el Valle ever since its first publication in August 1990. Send comments, suggestions and questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org