March 10, 2018

(Los Angeles, CA) - It is with deep sadness that MALDEF announces the passing of former president and general counsel Joaquin G. Avila, whose long career at the civil right organization and in the community was highlighted by his landmark work in voting rights advocacy and litigation.

He died Friday at his Seattle home surrounded by family. He was 69. He is survived by his wife, Sally; his children, Joaquin, Angelique and Salvador; his brother, Jaime Avila; his niece, Cecilia; and his great nieces, Somer and Cheyana.

Mr. Avila was born in Compton on June 23, 1948. He earned his undergraduate degree at Yale, where he was one of the first Mexican Americans ever admitted to the school; and his law degree at Harvard. He joined MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) in 1975 as a staff attorney and later directed MALDEF’s voting rights program. While working in MALDEF’s San Antonio office, he was counsel in a Texas district court case that held that cities and school boards are “political jurisdictions” as defined in the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, and therefore were required to obtain preclearance of voting changes under Section 5 of that Act. He served as president and general counsel from 1982 to 1985.

He was involved in litigating more than 70 voting rights cases during his career. Among his most notable achievements at MALDEF was his work to extend the protections of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. The extension, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, contained an amendment that deemed election practices unfair if they were proven discriminatory in effect, regardless of purpose or intent.

After his departure from MALDEF, Mr. Avila remained at the forefront of voting rights litigation. In 1999, he successfully argued a groundbreaking voting rights case on behalf of Latino plaintiffs in Monterey County, California, appearing, and winning twice before the U.S. Supreme Court. Later, he authored and spearheaded efforts that led to the passage of the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which is the only state voting rights act in the nation.

In 1988, he served as co-counsel in Garza v. County of Los Angeles, a landmark federal voting rights lawsuit that forced Los Angeles County to create the first Latino majority district. A federal judge ruled that the County Board of Supervisors had unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts to exclude Latinos from gaining representation.

Mr. Avila capped his career as the distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University School of Law, where he mentored untold numbers of law students. He received numerous awards throughout his career, including a 1996 MacArthur fellowship, the president’s award from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Ohtli Award from the Mexican government, and he was declared by the California State Assembly to be a “voting rights gladiator.” He was a recipient of MALDEF’s highest award, the Valerie Kantor Award for Extraordinary Achievement.

Please attribute the following statement from the family to Joaquin Avila, Jr.:

“My father was a kind and caring person who helped people who were in trouble, just as he did in his career. If he saw someone in trouble he tried to do something about it. My father always encouraged his children to follow our dreams. He did whatever he could to help us achieve those dreams. Whether we needed help or support in order to pursue our paths, he would be there to help us.”

Please attribute the following statement on Mr. Avila’s passing to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF:

“Joaquin's contributions to voting rights and to Latino civil rights have had a profound and incalculable impact, to the benefit of every person living in the United States. Underlying all of his innovative work was an unmatched quiet strength, deep intellect, and abiding respect for the dignity of all persons. Joaquin inspired and mentored civil rights advocates from all communities; I was blessed to meet him when I was a college freshman and have benefitted ever since. His legacy will be felt for many, many years to come. Our nation has lost a steadfast hero-warrior for the Constitution and for human rights.”

Please attribute the following statement on Mr. Avila’s passing to Ambassador Vilma Martinez, president and general counsel of MALDEF from 1973 to 1982:

“Joaquin was a creative, committed and fierce advocate for the inclusion of the Latino community in the political life of our country. He was also a gentle soul whom I will greatly miss.”

Please attribute the following statement on Mr. Avila’s passing to Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of MALDEF from 1985 to 2004:

“We have lost a brilliant lawyer who gave his life for the betterment of the Latino community. Joaquin changed the political landscape of the United States and made it possible for Latinos to participate in electoral politics.”

Information on memorial services is pending.

Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation's leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the "Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America" MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit:

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund