A Debt of Gratitude Joaquín Ávila helped change the faces of elected officials

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

To exemplify the impact civil rights lawyer Joaquín Ávila had in Monterey County, historian Ignacio Ornelas recalls a time when he used to play at Hebbron Heights Park in the Alisal and was harassed by a city employee. One of Ornelas’ friends told their brand-new city councilman, Simón Salinas, about said custodian during a forum at Hartnell College.

“Simón didn’t say anything, but a couple of weeks later, the custodian approached me, ¿Por qué me andas aventando a Simón Salinas? (‘Why are you siccing Simón Salinas on me?’) – kind of like a threat. Simón had followed up to find out what happened. That did not happen before, because we had no political representation on the city council.”

Ávila, who died of cancer in Seattle last week, is being remembered on California’s Central Coast as a “giant,” a “gladiator” and a “lion.” Nationally, he’s being called the father of California’s voting rights.

For some, no adjective is big enough to truly describe the impact the man had on the lives of millions of formerly disenfranchised people, and not just in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties — the cradle of a landmark case he twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s not just the City of Salinas, not just the County of Monterey,” said Phillip Tabera, retired professor at San José State University. “It’s the entire country. What that man did was monumental, and it was counter to what the Republican Party did in many parts of the country by gerrymandering sections of the community to exclude minority participation.”

Ávila was born in Southern California on June 23, 1948, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national organization he joined in 1975 as staff attorney. By then, he had earned his undergraduate degree at Yale as one of the first Mexican Americans ever admitted to the school, and got his law degree at Harvard. At MALDEF, he was counsel in a Texas district court case that held that cities and school boards are “political jurisdictions” as defined by the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, and were required to obtain pre-clearance of voting changes.

Ávila’s work caught the attention of Chicano activists in Salinas. A group comprised of the late Jesse Sanchez, Tabera, Fernando Armenta and others had been engaged in voter registration and called on Ávila to represent them as they set out to challenge at-large elections in the city. He came to represent not just Mexican Americans in Salinas but also in Watsonville, which was facing a similar issue.

Activists in Watsonville sued in 1985, and in 1989, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the city to hold district elections. Seeing the writing on the wall, Salinas leaders decided to change their election system just before Watsonville won its case, and Simón Salinas was the first Mexican American elected to the Salinas City Council.

It wouldn’t be the last time Ávila would influence local politics. Arguing that Monterey County’s consolidation of court districts into a single, countywide municipal district violated the Voting Rights Act, Ávila took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court twice to argue separate questions. He won both times.

“Lopez v. Monterey County is just as landmark as the Miranda case, as Fernandez v. Texas,” in terms of civil rights, Tabera said, referring in the latter case to the first time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Mexican Americans and other minority groups were entitled to protections under the 14th Amendment.

Ávila also pushed for passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001, the only state voting rights act in the nation.

“No one was more accomplished than him when it comes to fighting for Latino political empowerment and representation,” Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said in an email. “Most Latino elected officials and judges in office today owe a tremendous amount to his trailblazing work. The Latino community has lost one of its greatest champions of all time.”

Because he spent so much time in Monterey County, Watsonville and the Central Coast, many came to know Ávila personally and describe him as a humble man with a brilliant legal mind.

“I knew him as a very generous, astute person who put the future of other people first, of other Latinos first… perhaps to the detriment of his own health,” said Blanca Zarazua, honorary Mexican consul. “There are causes, and there are causes. There are financially driven causes and historically driven causes. The Voting Rights Act is not just about Latinos and African Americans, it’s about democracy. People seem to lose sight of the bigger picture, they forget that by protecting one people you protect the entire institution of democracy.”

Ávila suffered a stroke in 2012 that severely limited his mobility, but he still returned to Monterey County in 2015 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. He spent a week being feted, talking to reporters, and reminding students that, given the establishment of the United States by a slave-holding aristocracy, the document was still very much needed even as it had just been gutted.

Giving credit to others

At the time when that city employee accused Ornelas of siccing Simón Salinas on him, Ornelas didn’t know the link to Ávila’s work. But after he studied local history, Ornelas wanted to meet the legendary lawyer, and his desire to conduct an in-depth interview grew after he found out about Ávila’s stroke. The historian was able to spend three days with Ávila in Seattle to record his story in 2012. He found out Ávila was actually born in East Los Angeles and not in Compton, as has been widely reported. That’s what Ávila told him — and, besides, there was no hospital in Compton at the time, Ornelas said.

When remembering the work he did in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, Ávila was eager to give credit to the activists who paved the way for his work: Daniel Dodge, Juan Oliverez, Tabera, Armenta, Sánchez.

“Joaquín never took full credit,” Ornelas said. “This is a much larger story to a generation of young Chicanos that learned through advocacy of the Chicano movement to go back to their communities, and it was their advocacy that put them in touch with Joaquín in San Antonio.”

Although his mobility was limited, his mind was as sharp as ever, and his passion for voting rights was still unquenched.

“You could still hear it in his mind how he felt about the disenfranchisement of the Mexican population. Every minute of his day he would spend thinking, litigating, conducting research on anything related to his voting rights practice,” Ornelas said. “That’s how much of a passionate, dedicated attorney he was for voting rights across the United States and the West. We owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Ávila is survived by his wife, Sally; his children, Joaquín, Angelique and Salvador; his brother, Jaime Ávila; his niece, Cecilia; and his great nieces, Somer and Cheyana. Monterey and Salinas civil rights advocates are discussing ways to honor the leader locally in the near future.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.


Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.