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.”