Mario Obledo leaves a heartfelt legacy of victories for Latinos

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Mario Obledo, center. (Photo by Anthony Contreras, courtesy of the Obledo family)

Mario Obledo, center. (Photo by Anthony Contreras, courtesy of the Obledo family)

EL PASO, Texas — Dr. Mario G. Obledo’s heart went out to those who had no voice. He fought for decades for the rights of Latinos through civil unrest and through the creation of powerful institutions. On August 18, his heart fought its last battle.

The man known by many as the godfather of the Latino movement in the U.S. died at his home in Sacramento, California, of an apparent heart attack. He was 78.

His heart had always steered him in the right direction. Obledo served his people tirelessly, tearing down remnants of a wall of oppression and giving hope to those whose voices were too weak to be heard, but he never felt that he had done enough.

His widow, Keda Alcala-Obledo said that when Obledo was asked how he felt about receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, he simply replied, “I am honored and humbled for the little I have done.”

“Mario was a very humble man. He would always say ‘I’ve done very little for the advancement’,” said Alcala-Obledo. He never spoke of his accomplishments even after President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

“After he received the Presidential Medal we were waiting in the reception room … they sent in an usher and informed Mr. Obledo he was needed for interviews. Mr. Obledo said ‘no no, let the others talk’ and the usher said to him ‘No Mr. Obledo everyone is waiting for you. They want to speak with you.”

Obledo, the product of a humble upbringing, was a political force in the 1960s through the 1980s. He co-founded the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1968. He made significant contributions to MALDEF, opening offices in Denver, San Francisco and Washington.

“He was the co-founder of MALDEF and the Hispanic National Bar Association,” said Alcala-Obledo. “He was responsible in grounding national attention and strengthening these organizations.” He was known as a quiet man, who spoke only when the time called for it. But when he did speak, the room filled with silence as everyone waited to hear what he had to say, she said.

Alcala-Obledo told the story of a Japanese man who came up to him at a conference years ago and how Obledo was taken back because someone knew of him half a world away.

“This man came up to Mr. Obledo and said ‘It is an honor to meet you, we know of you, even in Japan. You are highly respected in our country’,” Alcala-Obledo said. “It surprised us to hear that from this man. Mario was very humbled by that experience.”

Obledo never regarded his work as complete. He considered his work only a small part in a movement that was unfinished. That is what drove the famed civil rights worker—the struggle for minorities motivated every facet of his life.

“The people influenced him. Seeing the injustice in the world gave him his drive,” said his daughter Sylvie Obledo. “Helping others drove him like no other. He was incredibly compassionate.”

His daughter said that despite the oppression he fought on a daily bases, he never brought work home to interfere with his family life.

“My sister said at his eulogy in Texas that she would ask dad ‘what is a day like in your life?’” Sylvie Obledo said. “His answer for her was ‘well I go to the office in the morning. I have a cup of coffee. I read a few newspapers. I have a meeting, make a few calls, then I have lunch, and then I go back to the office, have a few meetings, make a few calls and come home for dinner.’ That’s how he recapped his life for us. Even though we knew what he did, I don’t think any of us had an inkling of how much he impacted so many people.”

Sylvie Obledo said her father’s work had a profound effect on her later in her life. She spoke about Obledo’s upbringing and how he worked shinning shoes and selling newspapers in his youth. It taught him discipline and empathy, which he later instilled in his children.

“I wrote a letter, which I had a chance to read to him, thanking him for the influence he had in my life,” Sylvie Obledo said. “He instilled in me compassion for people—for everyone, for people that did not have the same opportunities I had growing up and for people who did not have a voice.”

His contributions far outweigh the memory of his life. For many young Latino’s and Latina’s, Obledo’s name may have been uttered once or twice in their lifetime, but the roads he paved are those beneath their feet, and the path that has been laid out in front of them, is none other than his own.

Years ago, in San Francisco, California, Obledo was testifying on behalf of minorities for the opportunity to work in the justice system. When asked by a California State Representative if Dr. Obledo was calling the Legislature racist, he simply replied, “What I am stating is we have to have people who understand us and know what we have gone through so people can know what we feel.”

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  1. I hadn’t heard about Mario’s demise. I am saddened and heart-broken that we lost one of our finest and most fearless leaders. I knew Mario way back when I was still working for the El Paso Herald-Post in 1982. Mario, as the National LULAC President, had been invited by Fidel Castro to visit the island nation. He was told that he could invite five Chicano journalists and some other LULAC leaders as well. I was fortunate that Mario invited me on that fact-finding tour. We all met up in Mexico City so that we could purchase our tickets to Cuba, since we couldn’t buy them in the U.S. My book, Chicano Sin Fin: Memoirs of a Chicano Journalist, was originally titled, A One Way Ticket to Cuba? But, my publisher changed the title. The reason for the original title was that there was no guarantee that we would be returning.

    All throughout that tour, Mario proved his courage time and time again. He stood up to Fidel Castro and to all his henchmen in ways that I never thought he would. For example, during one luncheon with the Minister of Defense, I opened my big mouth and asked if there were missiles in Cuba aimed at the U.S. We had all agreed that we would ask that question, but, since nobody was doing it, I decided to jump in. The Cuban leaders were taken aback and, to say the least, didn’t like the question. Our punishment was that we reporters were no longer going to be allowed to attend future meetings. So, we protested and informed Mario that if we weren’t allowed in, we were going to write stories to that effect. Frank del Olma, one of our greatest journalists then with the L.A. Times was with us. Mario stood up to the officials and informed them that if we were not allowed at the meetings, we would all return to the U.S. with more stories to tell about Cuban efforts to censor us. Mario won, and we were allowed back in.

    Another incident happened at the infamous Cuban penitentiary. We were allowed in to speak to the prison’s warden, a tough looking guy with a pock-marked face. Everything was going well, until Mario raised the issue of them allowing us to interview or speak to several of the American prisoners who were being held there. Mario pulled out a list with their names. Then, everything turned ominous. The warden was having none of that and told Mario that there was no way we could interview even one of the Americans. Well, Mario stood his ground and would not budge. The warden tried to intimidate Mario, but, wasn’t being succesful. The warden warned us that we could all be jailed if we didn’t leave. Mario just said to go ahead and jail us, but we weren’t moving. Finally, the stand-off ended when the warden called Raul Castro and received orders that Mario and the other LULAC leaders could speak to one of the men, but, not us journalists. Well, that was a victory for Mario, so we didn’t complain. We were escorted out of the room, while the American prisoner came in to speak to Mario. Later, Mario told us everything that had happened and we wrote our stories for our U.S. newspapers.

    Those are only two examples of the courage and vision which Mario Obledo left as his legacy. My heart goes out to his wife and the rest of his family. We lost a truly great warrior when we lost the great man – Mario Obledo. Que en paz descanse!

    Joe Olvera
    El Sin Fin

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