1970s: The Early Years
In its early years, the organization filed its first lawsuit on behalf of the Puerto Rican educational improvement organization ASPIRA, against the New York City Board of Education.
The suit led to the August 1974 ASPIRA Consent Decree, which established the right of city public school students with limited English proficiency to receive bilingual education while they simultaneously became fluent in English.
As with virtually all the successful cases brought by PRLDEF, the suit was filed with Puerto Ricans taking the lead, but the remedies benefited a broader, pan-Latino community in the U.S. The Aspira case was a watershed moment in the education of Latino children precisely because it was won in the largest school district in the country. But it was not without controversy as PRLDEF attorneys were forced to sue to protect the employment rights of school superintendents, principals, and teachers who were supportive of the litigation strategy in the Aspira case.
The decree was a key factor in bilingual education spreading throughout the city school system, and even in other parts of the country. Lopez de Vega v. Thomas, a bilingual education suit filed against the city of Philadelphia, was settled in 1977 and the Philadelphia School Board subsequently formally adopted an equal educational opportunity statement. Other jurisdictions were sued to create bilingual education programs to address the language needs of Latino students in Patchogue, Long Island (Rios v. Reed), and Central Islip, Long Island (Cintrón v. Brentwood Union Free School District). Vocational education programs were also made available to Spanish-speaking school students throughout Connecticut in the case, Spanish-American Coalition v. Connecticut Department of Education.
Securing Voting Rights for Language Minorities
In 1973, as a result of a PRLDEF court victory (López v. Dinkins), bilingual ballots and interpreters – in English, Spanish and Chinese – were provided to parents to vote in the school board elections. The same legal arguments were then used in the landmark voting rights case, Torres v. Sachs, which required the use of bilingual ballots for all New York City elections. The arguments used to establish bilingual election systems in New York City were then repeated with great success in New York State (Ortíz v. NYS Board of Elections), Philadelphia (Arroyo v. Tucker), and New Jersey (Márquez v. Falcey).
In 1975 the federal Voting Rights Act was amended to secure the voting rights of all linguistic minorities throughout the country. In fact, the early Voting Rights Act victories obtained by PRLDEF set the stage for the federal bilingual assistance provisions that inured to the benefit of Mexican-American and Latino voters, and later to Asian American and Native American voters. The expressed sentiment in Congress in 1975 was clear: if bilingual elections could work in New York City, they could work anywhere.
Fighting for Equal Employment and Government Benefits
Employment litigation was another major feature of the early phase of litigation, particularly public sector and civil service work opportunities. In Luna v. Bronstein discriminatory height requirements that unnecessarily disqualified Latino applicants were discontinued in the New York City Sanitation Department. Similar discriminatory height requirements along with automatic disqualifications based on minor criminal histories were outlawed in the City’s Fire Department (Vulcan v. Civil Service Commission). These efforts informed PRLDEF’s groundbreaking litigation against the New York City Police Department which single-handedly led to the integration of the City’s police force by Latino and African-American officers (Guardians Association v. Civil Service Commission). Challenges to discriminatory entrance and promotional exams were successively won as were challenges to “last hired, first fired” policies which had a discriminatory effect on Latino applicants. Years later in 1983, the Guardians Association litigation was the first case litigated by PRLDEF that went to the U.S. Supreme Court successfully setting new standards for employment discrimination challenges to civil service exams.
A favorable settlement in 1977 in Vázquez v. Ferré, which protected the rights of Puerto Rican migrant farmworkers in New Jersey fruit farms to facilities that met minimum health standards, helped ensure that by the late 1970s, PRLDEF had established itself as the leading legal advocacy group for Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States.
Access to government benefits for Spanish-dominant, poor households was another important aspect of the civil rights docket. In Sanchez v. Maher, the Connecticut State Welfare Department was forced to hire bilingual personnel and provide Spanish language forms and notices. In a related area, New Jersey and New York were sued by PRLDEF for their policies to terminate unemployment insurance benefits to Puerto Ricans who had returned to Puerto Rico in Rodríguez v. Hoffman (NJ) and Galvan v. Levine (NY).
Improving Opportunity through Education
But the founders and incorporating Board of Directors agreed that litigation was not the only way to improve opportunities for Latinos. There was an urgent need to develop civil rights advocates to secure and promote the rights of the Puerto Rican and Latino community on the mainland. They felt there was a need to have Puerto Rican attorneys serve in public office and represent the community in the decision-making process. So they created the Legal Education Division to increase the numbers of Puerto Ricans who attend and succeed at law school through training, counseling and preparatory programs. For the underserved Puerto Rican and Latino community of the New York metropolitan area, this assessment and action plan was a welcome addition to the efforts to increase the professional ranks of a growing population.
Throughout the 1970s, the organization was led by the following Presidents and General Counsels: Cesar Perales, Jorge Batista, and Oscar García-Rivera. The 1980s ushered in a new era of conservatism that would directly impact the work of civil rights organizations for years to come. A backlash to the expansive interpretations of te Constitution were embodied by the Reagan administration and its deliberate efforts to change the composition of the country's judicial appointments. Interpretations that were typically deserving of precedental status and stare decisis were questioned by an increasingly active judiciary. The organization’s landmark civil rights lawsuits and educational opportunity programs continued to make a difference in the daily lives of Latinos across the country in a number of different areas for the past 40 years.