“You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out, and get in good trouble.
— Congressman John Lewis
Last month, one Saturday afternoon, we celebrated the life of an amazingly talented civil rights lawyer and all around good human being, Joaquin Avila. This was in Watsonville, California, at a community center located in a Mexican-American neighborhood, The next morning I boarded a flight to San Antonio, Texas and that evening I was at a funeral home paying tribute to another remarkable friend, Roy Robbins, whom I’d known even longer than Joaquin. A common thread emerged: these were men who made good trouble, and as we mourned their passing we celebrated two lives well lived.
I met Joaquin Avila in 1980 when I was hired to work at the National Office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) then located in San Francisco. Thirty years ago, Joaquin was already a renowned leader in the voting rights field. As a young attorney I was to split my time between voting rights and education cases; eventually my focus turned to education law but my relationship with Joaquin as colleague and friend continued.
Speakers recounted the many ways their own lives, and those of their communities, were shaped by Joaquin’s work as one of the nation’s top voting rights lawyers. Lawyers and activists came to Watsonville from the agricultural valleys of the Golden State, the Bay Area, the Pacific Northwest, and as far away as Mississippi. Speakers reminded us of the many ways and in the many places (Utah, yes Utah) where Joaquin’s work had shaped the political landscape of this country.
Joaquin was the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (known to the world as the MacArthur Genius Award) in 1996. He had served as President and General Counsel of MALDEF. His cases had been argued (by him) in highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court. Beyond those notable accomplishment, we also heard about his engagement and support of Mexican-American small business owners, farmworkers, union organizers, school teachers, and members of LULAC chapters. These people knew that without political representation in every governing entity (school boards, city councils, and state and federal legislatures) our communities would continue to be denied the opportunities to develop to our fullest potential.
Many of the speakers, most of them Latinxs, are the products of the successes recounted on the yellowed newspaper clippings on the community center’s bulletin board’s about Joaquin’s legal victories in the Salinas Valley and elsewhere. We recalled Joaquin’s humility, kindness, patience, and persistent unwillingness to give up, even as the US Supreme Court guts the protections afforded disenfranchised communities.
The warm remembrances, and the smiling photographs of Joaquin helped me recall his infectious laugh, and gave us the chance to give thanks for this mighty champion. Joaquin did all this work at great financial sacrifice to himself and his family. The legal battles he pursued are expensive to investigate, cue up, bring to trial, and to sustain as they wend their way through lengthy appeals. But the fruits of his labors are everywhere. Remember him next time you go to the polls. Joaquin Avila, PRESENTE.
The following day I flew to San Antonio to attend funeral services for Roy Robbins, married 40+ years to Margaret Guzman Robbins, a good friend since our college days. I sat quietly and peacefully on a wooden pew in a funeral home’s chapel, as people of varying ages (many millennials) offered condolences, then approached the open casket, knelt, and paid their respects. The evening ended with the recitation of the Holy Rosary. All this was so familiar, the ritual of funerals I attended during my childhood in South Texas. Still there was some cognitive dissonance: the person we were mourning in this very Mexican-American ritual was an Anglo.
Roy Robbins was born and raised in The Rio Grande Valley of South Texas where throughout his (and my) childhood Anglos ruled and Mexican-Americans were considered inferior. Back then, kids from these two groups rarely interacted with each other. But Roy made friends with Mexican-American kids and rejected these messages of white supremacy. He cared deeply about fairness and justice, and responding to his first calling he became a Methodist Minister. As a Minister he was active in making good trouble by participating in the integration of white churches in the Deep South.
But he left the ministry and began working on economic development programs established during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which eventually led him to pursue a degree in economics and to his career as a Professor of Economics at St. Mary’s University. It took Roy several decades to earn his PhD, as working full-time teaching, mentoring students, illness, and life events, made it difficult to get that dissertation completed.
On my trips to South Texas, Roy and Margaret were the friends who always picked me up at the San Antonio Airport and immediately delivered me to a favorite Tex-Mex restaurant before dropping me off at the home of a family member. Last year they called with great excitement to tell me that one of his brightest students had been accepted into UC Berkeley’s PhD Program in Economics. As Monica knew no one in the Bay Area, they wanted to connect the young Latina to someone with Bay Area roots. They knew I'd be interested in meeting her, and it’s been an absolute pleasure to know this exceptional young woman.
I met several of Professor Robbins’ students, as they called themselves, the evening of the Visitation and Rosary and the next day at the Reception that followed the Funeral Mass. These former students came from Dallas, Michigan, Houston (and places in between) to express their gratitude for the support they had gotten over the years from both Roy and Margaret.
Their stories of Roy’s generosity towards his students were unknown to me, but they did not surprise me: paid DACA fees for young Dreamers, bought textbooks to students in need, and gave most generously of his time and attention.
The only speaker at the Funeral Mass was their daughter Jenny, who knew firsthand her father’s love for teaching and his students and his steadfast belief in equality even when it meant bucking tradition. “He raised me to know that he would never give me away at my wedding. But it wasn’t because of sentimental or protective reasons; it was because he wouldn’t participate in anything that made it look like I was his property to give away.”
Near and dear to my heart, Roy was always encouraging students to be proud of their ethnic heritage, and stressing the importance of pronouncing their names correctly and including accents and tildes or whatever other diacritical marks their names might have.
Roy Robbins made good trouble challenging students, taking them outside of their comfort zone and helped shape the lives of many young people, the vast majority of them first generation Latinx college students whom he would see graduate and begin careers doing meaningful work, and in some instances pursuing advanced degrees.
Last year, two of those grateful students -- who met at St. Mary’s and later married -- endowed the Roy Robbins Professorship in Economics with a one million dollar gift to the University. The couple, who went on to earn advanced degrees, returned to Mexico where they are successful entrepreneurs. In establishing the fellowship, one of the donors, Marisol Arteaga Gonzalez, echoed the words of other students I met. “Dr. Robbins has left a mark both in my personal life and in my professional career. He has been a mentor who motivates me to believe in myself and to strive for what is right. I think the most important thing I have learned from him is to love the subject of economics – a great instrument that can be used to help achieve a better society.”
Roy Robbins, PRESENTE.
The picture above is a tapestry in The Guadalupe Chapel at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. My alma mater has an undergraduate student body that is 85% people of color, 70% Latinx.