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The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund

By Ruth Terry

Graduate Student, Grand Valley State University (Fall, 2005)

Definition

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) is an organization that supports the Latino community by providing legal counsel and advocacy. The organization has three main components: legal, policy, and education. These three sections enable PRLDEF to operate its key program areas of Civil and Human Rights, Civic Engagement and Empowerment, Civil Society and Culture, and Equitable Educational Opportunities programs (America’s Charities 2005).

PRLDEF’s mission is to develop a more equitable society by creating opportunities for Latinos in areas where they are traditionally underrepresented. The purpose of this organization is to ensure that Latinos have the legal resources necessary to fully engage in civic life. Through ongoing efforts in the fields of law, advocacy, and education, PRLDEF continues to assist Latinos in establishing sustainable communities (PRLDEF 2005). PRLDEF has secured victories for Latinos in bilingual education, as well as voting, employment, housing, and immigrant rights since the organization’s inception over 30 years ago.

Historic Roots

Many Puerto Ricans immigrated to the United States after World War II, especially to major metropolitan areas like New York City (Library of Congress 2004). As a result, by the 1970s, the City of New York had a significant Puerto Rican population (Perales 1993). At that time, bilingual students were consistently marginalized by the school system. Only a few teachers spoke English and Spanish. The education of Puerto Rican students suffered due to the lack of communication between students and teachers.

Three lawyers named Jorge Batista, Victor Marrero, and Cesar A. Perales established PRLDEF in 1972 in order to give legal support to the Puerto Rican community. Their first case was undertaken at the request of a youth development organization called Aspira. Both organizations were very aware of the mounting problems young Puerto Rican students were having as they went through New York’s education system. In a landmark case, Aspira vs. New York City Board of Education, the courts ruled that schools must pay attention to the needs of Latino students whose native language was not English (Duignan, n.d.).

Importance

The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund is important because it gives Latinos a voice in American democracy. Latinos now have increased access to education, employment, voting, and leadership development. For example, when the Fund was incorporated, white males held many of New York’s police force positions. Today, things are radically different due in large part to the work of PRLDEF. The organization has also participated in more recent court cases involving the National Labor Relations Board and an equal opportunity lawsuit brought against a Connecticut company (PRLDEF 2005).

Other important PRLDEF efforts have included the requirement of ballot interpreters in New York City elections in 1973, criticism of politicians who redistrict according to race, and the constant monitoring of the treatment of Latino immigrants. Other services PRLDEF provides are scholarships and prep courses to help increase the representation of Latinos in the legal system. PRLDEF has worked for three decades to improve the quality of life for Puerto Ricans and other Latino constituencies.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

PRLDEF is tied to the philanthropic sector because it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization governed and funded in accordance with its IRS determination and it is a considerable player in the area of nonprofit advocacy. A Board of Directors governs PRLDEF, as is required for nonprofits with tax-exempt status. The Board has a number of responsibilities such as the creation of committees, appointment of the President and General Counsel, and giving advice to staff regarding fund development, strategic planning, and other administrative concern.

PRLDEF is able to exist because of the major financial support coming from corporations, foundations, individuals, and annual fundraising events. Over they years, PRLDEF – like many other nonprofits specializing in minority issues – has had to fight to maintain financial viability. Foundation money comes from organizations like the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Foundation. Events like dances and formal dinners also contribute to the organization’s revenue. Legal fees also make up a portion of income generated for this agency.

Today PRLDEF is one of the major civil rights advocacy groups. They work alongside organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACPLDEF) and their sister organization, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). The group operates at the national level with headquarters in New York.

Key Related Ideas

Advocacy is “pleading for or against a cause” (Hopkins 1992). Methods employed by advocacy organizations often include raising awareness, political lobbying, and litigation.

Bilingual Education is an issue of particular importance to Latinos, many of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Among Latino children, Spanish may be the primary language they use at home. Advocates for bilingual education propose a variety of ways to better integrate the Spanish language into the classroom. Some suggest teaching all classes in both English and Spanish. Others maintain that students should learn English as soon as possible, though at first they may need to be taught in Spanish (Crawford 1998).

Civic Participation is involvement by members of the community in government or community affairs. Civic participation includes activities such as voting, volunteering, and advocacy (Salamon 2002).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Juan A. Figueroa (1953-): Mr. Figueroa is the current President and General Counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Figueroa was also the first State Representative of Puerto Rican descent. He also worked with President Clinton on affirmative action issues.

  • Victor Marrero (1941-): Victor Marrero served as PRLDEF’s Board Chairman beginning in 1972. In 1999, Senator Charles E. Schumer nominated Marrero for the position of Federal District Court Judge for New York’s Southern District. Mr. Marrero has also served as the United States Ambassador to the Organization of American States, as well as the US Representative on the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

  • Cesar A. Perales (1940-): Mr. Perales is the Executive Director of the PRLDEF. He was born to Puerto Rican and Dominican parents. As an adult, he completed his education at the City College of New York. Perales was one of the founding members of PRLDEF and worked in the public sector before returning to PRLDEF in 1981.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • El Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos is a department within the City University of New York’s Hunter College. El Centro has recently collaborated with PRLDEF and MALDEF to create archives of important organizational documents compiled by the two agencies. This project was underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities and support from Anheuser-Busch (www.latino.sscnet.ucla.edu/research/centro.html).

  • The Institute for Puerto Rican Policy is a research organization affiliated with PRLDEF. The Institute specializes in policy analysis and advocacy, civic participation, and policy networking/communications (www.nypn.org/htm/Members/ipr/).

  • The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is an organization analogous to PRLDEF that works for the rights of Mexican Americans. Due to the large influx of Mexican immigrants to this country, MALDEF has more of an emphasis on immigration and migrant issues than PRLDEF (www.maldef.org/).

Related Websites 

El Centro de la Raza is an organization headquartered in Seattle working for Mexican American rights and empowerment. Their website is available at www.elcentrodelaraza.com/aboutus/history.htm and contains information and resources in both English and Spanish. 

The Migrants Rights International Website is located at www.migrantwatch.org and contains information about the work of this non-governmental organization and the rights of migrant workers. A key concern of this organization is the ratification of the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund Website can be found at www.naacpldf.org. This site has “quick links,” news, issues, and press releases sections. The NAACPLEF also tracks relevant court cases and legislation through its website.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

America’s Charities. “Member Directory.” Accessed 1 December 2005. www.charities.org/memberdir/index.cfm?fa=MembrInfo&id=1930.

Boris, Elizabeth T. and Jeff Krehely. “Civic Participation and Advocacy,” in The State of Nonprofit America, ed. Lester Salamon (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002), 301. ISBN: 0815706235.

Crawford, James. “Issues in U.S. Language Policy: Bilingual Education.” Accessed 2 December 2005. www.ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/JWCRAWFORD/biling.htm.

Duignan, Peter. “Bilingual Education: A Critique.” Accessed 1 December 2005. www-hoover.stanford.edu/publications/he/22/22j.html.

Hopkins, Bruce. Charity, Advocacy, and the Law. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1992), 32. ISBN: 0471587494.

Library of Congress. “Immigration… Puerto Rican/Cuban: Migrating to a New Land.” Accessed 1 December 2005. www.memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/cuban3.html.

Perales, Cesar. Interview by Project Archivist. 1993. Transcript. Introduction to the PRLDEF Section. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, City University of New York, New York. Accessed 29 November 2005. www.centropr.org/lib-arc/prldef.html.