Mario G. Obledo, 78

Mario G. Obledo, 78, Latino civil rights pioneer, dies

Mario Obledo
Mario Obledo (Ap Wirephoto - Ap Wirephoto)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010

Mario G. Obledo, a son of poor Mexican immigrants who became a prominent civil rights activist and the first Latino to head a California state agency, died Aug. 18 at his home in Sacramento after a heart attack. He was 78.

Mr. Obledo, one of 13 children raised by a single mother in San Antonio, has been called the godfather of the Latino civil rights movement for his efforts to raise Latinos' profile as a political force.

A lawyer by trade, he co-founded the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the late 1960s and served as its first general counsel, using the courts to fight discrimination against Latinos in the workplace, in public schools and elsewhere.

He also co-founded the Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, and he played an early leadership role with the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which works to boost the number of Latino voters.

In 1975, he was tapped by California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. to head the sprawling Health and Welfare Agency, overseeing more than 50,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $11 billion. During his tenure, Mr. Obledo fought allegations that he was tied to the Mexican Mafia and stirred controversy with his unapologetic efforts to hire more minorities into state government.

He served until 1982, when he resigned to run unsuccessfully for governor.

In the mid-1980s, he served as president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation's largest and oldest Hispanic American organization. He was outspoken on issues including immigration reform and bilingual education, and he refused to accept what he considered the scant attention mainstream political candidates gave Latinos.

At the 1984 Democratic National Convention, he urged Latino delegates to boycott voting on the first ballot to reprimand the presumed presidential nominee, former vice president Walter F. Mondale, for ignoring issues important to them. Asked whether sending that message to Mondale was more important than defeating President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Obledo replied: "I'm a Democrat and I love my party. But I love my community more."

Mr. Obledo served as chairman from 1988 to 1993 of the National Rainbow Coalition, the left-leaning organization founded by Jesse Jackson after his 1984 presidential bid. Then Mr. Obledo largely faded from view until 1998, when Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Clinton said Mr. Obledo "created a powerful chorus for justice and equality," citing as an example his efforts in 1970 on behalf of Latino children who were banned from a public swimming pool in Texas.

Mr. Obledo drove 200 miles to the pool and was told he couldn't enter. He brought suit, and when he won, Clinton said, "even the joy in the courthouse could not match that of Mexican American children whose civil rights had been defended, as finally they had a chance to jump into that public pool."

Also in 1998, Mr. Obledo made a series of statements that landed him at the center of the national debate over race and immigration.

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