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By Raquel C. Garza
Growing up in Laredo, Texas, Pedro "Pete" Tijerina said he "never knew what discrimination was," mainly because the city's population was mostly Mexican. School children spoke Spanish freely, never fearing reproach from teachers.
His father, Pedro Martinez Tijerina, provided for his family in a humble way; he worked as a self-employed truck driver, moving furniture from house to house. The elder Tijerina made a modest sum for his services, "75 cents, a dollar and a quarter would be too much," recalled Tijerina, smiling.
His mother, Gertrudis Guerra Tijerina, was able to stay at home and care for her two children, Pete and Minerva.
In the summer of 1937, at the age of 15, Tijerina left this home in Laredo to join the Citizen's Military Training Corps at Camp Bullis in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The camp was organized to encourage high school students to join the Army, and would pay $15 for the entire six weeks of training. He decided to join, but was sent home after two weeks because the Corps discovered he wasn’t 17 years of age.
"I went to the San Antonio terminal market and found a watermelon truck going back to Laredo ... I got a ride with him," Tijerina said.
He returned to school, and in the summer of 1938, rejoined the Citizen's Military Training Corps, enduring weeks of intensive training that culminated with a 20-mile hike in full field gear that included wool leggings and a wool shirt. Tijerina said that during this time he became skilled at handling a rifle.
He was promoted to the second-year division Red Class, but because times were tough for his family, he asked to be transferred to the Civilian Conservation Corps in Pflugerville, Texas. The CCC was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's many efforts to revive the country during the Great Depression. By the time the program ended in 1942, three million young men were given work. They were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was required to be sent back home. Tijerina worked for the CCC building fences and planting sod.
During his time at the camp, a public announcement was made that Mexican Americans -- and only Mexican Americans -- must get a crew cut, he said. Of the 75 Mexican Americans at the camp, Tijerina was elected spokesman to protest the order. It was the first time he stood up for himself against authority. The CCC discharged him, so he returned to Laredo and continued school.
After completing his second year of high school, Tijerina returned to the Citizen's Military Training Corps, and was put in charge of 36 soldiers as a platoon commander.
On August 1, 1941, three days shy of his 18th birthday, Tijerina decided to join the Air Force. He was assigned to the 290th Air Force. Describing his service as "uneventful," he served as a guard at Brooks Air Force Base, and later, as an aircraft propeller mechanic.
After being stationed in Guam in July of 1945, as a propeller specialist, he made friends with other Mexican American soldiers. A fellow solider, Juan Castillo, had a record player and one record, Toda Una Vida (An Entire Lifetime), that they listened to over and over again.
His friend was host to many Saturday night gatherings, where Tijerina and eight or nine other friends listened to their one record and drank "jungle juice," a homemade fermented brew made from cactus.
One night before the group arrived, the Japanese dropped a bomb near the house, and Juan was killed.
Tijerina was discharged in December of 1945, four months after the war's end. He returned to his parents’ home in Laredo with $1,500 he’d managed to save. He offered the money to his father so they could go into business together. Instead, his father refused, insisting his son go to school.
During the war, Tijerina had unwittingly prepared for his college entrance exams by reading many books; in the beginning, he read to kill time, but soon reading fueled greater desires, he recalled.
Tijerina approached his high school principal, J.W. Nixon, who told him, "Pete, if you pass the college entrance exam to Texas, I'll give you your diploma."
He passed and was accepted to the University of Texas at Austin.
Tijerina attended the University of Texas at Austin from 1946 to 1948, and then attended Laredo Junior College in order to bring up his grade point average so he could apply to law school. Attending law school wasn’t a new idea to him.
"I read a book by Irving Stone, it was a book on Clarence Darrow that guided me towards law,'' Tijerina said. "The book was about Clarence Darrow fighting for the oppressed and the poor and I thought, 'Maybe this is where I belong,'"
He applied and was accepted to three universities, ultimately deciding to attend St. Mary's University in San Antonio.
In the spring of 1948, Tijerina was told it would be the last semester he would receive his GI Bill benefits. In need of 12 more hours to graduate, he took courses at St. Mary's and at a school in Houston, while working full time with the Department of Public Welfare. This required him to drive to Houston for classes on Monday and Friday nights, as well as Saturday mornings. He took night classes in San Antonio on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
In the end, St. Mary's wouldn’t accept his transfer grades from Houston (an 87 average), denying him the B average he needed to graduate. St. Mary's suspended him for scholastic reasons, telling him that before he could take the bar exam, he needed to find a lawyer and complete his studies in the offices of a municipal judge, Jimmy Tafolla, a practice known as "reading for the bar."
Tijerina took out $15 from five different signature loan companies and rented a room at the Robert E. Lee Hotel in downtown San Antonio. He studied for 30 days straight, stopping only to eat at the coffee shop downstairs.
"I went and took my bar exam and got a better grade than the guys that were on the Dean's list at St. Mary's!" Tijerina recalled, laughing.
He passed the bar in 1951 and began to practice in January of 1952. He became a criminal trial lawyer, "learning by trial and error" and taking whatever cases he could get.
During his military years, as the only Mexican American in his company, Tijerina said his ethnicity was never a concern, as he was surrounded by many different ethnicities from all over the country. His experience after the war was a different story, however.
Signs on the doors of rural Texas restaurants, hotels and public bathrooms read: "No Mexicans allowed."
As a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) organization, he often heard people's complaints of discrimination as they approached the LULAC council looking for some sort of legal satisfaction.
His experiences as a trial lawyer allowed him to see discrimination firsthand.
"The [non-Latino] jurors were not the peers of my clients, who were poor people from the West Side. They wouldn't hesitate to render guilty verdicts," Tijerina said.
Active since the 1950s in the struggle for equal treatment, Tijerina worked with LULAC to secure the civil rights of Mexican Americans. But LULAC Council 2 in San Antonio had no money. All they could do was file resolutions with the school boards, city councils and police departments, hoping for change.
But the case that led him headlong into the Civil Rights Movement, and secured him a place in history, was one he filed in Jourdanton, Texas, in 1966.
His client, a Latino woman, had been involved in an automobile accident that resulted in the amputation of her right leg. When Tijerina reported for trial and was shown the jury list, no Mexican Americans were on it. He protested and the judge reset the trial date. Before the second trial, Tijerina was shown a new list.
"They had two Mexicanos. One had been dead for 10 years," he said. The other one spoke no English.
Tijerina had no choice but to settle the case out of court.
Then opportunity came knocking.
At the time, Jack Greenberg was the executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He offered Tijerina $500 to attend a conference in Chicago. Tijerina wasn’t able to attend, and instead asked Matt Garcia, another attorney, to take his place. When Garcia came back with a positive report, Tijerina called Jack.
Jack offered to come to San Antonio with a staff of NAACP lawyers to help fight the civil rights cases for them. Instead, however, Tijerina suggested they start their own legal defense fund.
"It was important to the movement, and to the cause, and to the Mexican American community that we have our own lawyers fight our own cases," said Tijerina in retrospect.
Ten days later, Jack sent money to fly Tijerina to New York City to meet with a committee from the Ford Foundation.
The Ford Foundation was interested in Tijerina's idea and asked for a proposal for a defense fund to aid the entire Southwest instead of only Texas, as originally planned. One major obstacle stood in Tijerina's way: the foundation stipulated there must be no competing proposals.
Through much effort, Tijerina was able to convince both lawyers and civil rights leaders across the Southwest to allow him to take the lead. The proposal, asking for $1 million, was finally drafted and submitted.
There was nothing to do but wait. Finally, a meeting was called and the announcement was made that the foundation was granting the legal defense fund $2.25 million.
With this, Tijerina and other lawyers were able to begin his legal crusade. He first attacked the jury system of Bexar County, where he’d witnessed many injustices, and the City Public Service Board, which operated without a single Mexican American member.
After 40 years of practicing law and tirelessly fighting for the rights of the Latino community, Tijerina retired in 1992 and is now living with his wife, Grace Gonzalez Tijerina, in San Antonio, Texas. The couple has three children.
The organization he cultivated from a single mustard seed of hope for justice is now known nationwide as an advocate for Latino rights. Today, MALDEF thrives with offices all over the country.
Tijerina said his experience during the war was very valuable.
"It taught me that I was a first-class citizen, that I was an American," he said.
Mr. Tijerina was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on October 20, 2000, by Maggie Rivas Rodriguez and Maro Robbins.