When Thomas Saenz was in seventh grade, a counselor feared he would not be able to keep up with algebra at Alhambra High. Instead, his mother challenged the school, he excelled, and he went on to study at Yale University and to become one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in the nation. Saenz, again an Alhambra resident, left his job three years ago as counsel to Mayor Villaraigosa to become president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund or MALDEF. The national organization has taken the lead in advocacy from civil rights lawsuits challenging Abercrombie & Fitch for hiring only white sales people to pushing Congress for comprehensive immigration reform.
I recently visited Saenz, 45, at his downtown LA office. When I entered and saw a picture of him with President Barack Obama, numerous awards, and stacks of legal documents, I was nervous. But instead he made me feel right at home. Before I got to start my interview, he interviewed me. We discovered that we both were student body president at Alhambra High School: There was about 25 years between us, but we were both the only elected Latinos on the council. We spoke about the dynamics at Alhambra High, how the city shaped him as a civil rights leader, and why he believes this is a crucial period for Latinos in the United States.
You're known nationally as a civil rights leader. Did growing up in Alhambra shape your commitment?
Yes, certainly. My parents made my brother and me both aware of how important equality, equal opportunity, and civil rights were. They also demonstrated to both of us in their actions and statements how important public service is.
Going to Alhambra High School there was a cognizance that our school was a majority minority school, at the time Asian and Latino making up together two-thirds and Caucasian students making up that last third. I remember being on the debate team and going to Arcadia High School, which at the time was primarily Caucasian, and racist remarks being directed to my classmates who were Asian on the debate team. Debating at that time, we ended up competing with very white, affluent schools from the west side of LA and we were very cognizant of the class differences between us, as were they.
You left Alhambra to go to college at Yale. How did your experiences from Alhambra translate at Yale?
Given my experience in high school, I went to college intending to found an organization that at the time I thought would be called ”United Minority Movement” the idea was that it would franchise to other schools. I never founded the organization, but that was sort of the mind-set I had growing up in Alhambra, and then going to, at the time a very non-minority college. I think when I started at Yale, in a class of over 1,000 students, I think there were 16 Mexican-Americans. By the time we graduated I think there were only eight.
I graduated last year from Alhambra High School as well. A lot of the issues you faced were issues that I faced just two years ago. Can you speak to your experience with the achievement gap between Asian students and Latino students?
There were just literally three or four Latino students who were in the AP and honors courses with me. The vast majority of the others were Asian, but there were white students in the classes as well. It also played out in who was in leadership roles, student government, and in other extra-curricular activities other than sports. It was troubling, but what is even more troubling, based on what I’ve read from what you have written and from what I understand from others, is that the issue is still around.
As a civil rights lawyer, I am very cognizant that it’s a slightly different context, because it’s one minority against another minority, not the white majority and a minority group. So it does make it different, but it doesn’t make it of any less concern, particularly because a lot of this can be attributed to the actions of the administrators and teachers. Unfortunately, students absorb the views that are subtly or overtly expressed in actions or words of the teachers or administrators.
How can these issues in Alhambra relate to nationwide trends?
This issue of the education gap is an issue all across America. It needs to be addressed, not just as a matter of civil rights and equal opportunities, as I certainly think it is, but also to ensure that our nation is prepared to compete globally in the future. The simple fact is that Latinos are the largest minority group in America making up 16.3 percent of the population and an even higher percentage of those under the age of 18. If you take the two largest under-achieving groups, African Americans and Latinos, those two groups, today in 2011, are over one quarter of the student population, so if we want to ensure that we perform globally, we can’t have that kind of race-linked education gap. That doesn't mean that it’s the result of any overt racial discrimination, but we still have practices that may have discriminatory effects. We still have folks who operate on racial stereotypes, and they may not be aware of it. We have not taken the right steps to make sure that we don’t have biased selection tools. Whether that’s standardized test or access to high-level curriculum or extra-curricular activities. We have not taken the steps to ensure that those kinds of systemic biases are eliminated, so it is a matter of serious national concern.
At a school where so many Latino students were not able to achieve, why were you able to be so successful?
I am certainly not one of those people that thinks since I was able to do it, that there means there isn’t a problem. I certainly saw lots of potential in the Latino students that I knew that ended up being unrealized potential. I benefited from some very strong parental influences. I benefited from my mother having some understanding of the educational system. When I left Emery Park Elementary School, I actually skipped seventh grade, because my teachers said they couldn’t teach me anymore. I still remember that the counselor who was scheduling my classes — a retired, white man — looked at where I came from, the most heavily populated Latino neighborhood, looked at my parents and looked at my last name. Then he told my parents and me that he wanted to enroll me in a mid-level algebra class. My mother didn’t understand why he was doing this since I was skipping the grade and I had very high test scores. He told me he thought it might be too tough for me, and that I would take this class and then if I did well I could move up. I, at the time, was thirteen, and was ready to accept that. It was my mother who said she wasn’t leaving until he enrolled me in the highest level algebra class. It was only later that I realized it was that class that put me on track to take AP calculus my senior year. And then I learned that what he said, you know, start at the mid-level and then move up, rarely ever happened. If not for my mother being aware enough and strong enough, my experience would have been different. I think it happens frequently and because so many students don’t have a parent who is confident enough to stand up to an authority figure, students aren’t given the best opportunities.
Anything you want Alhambra residents to know about you or your work?
This is a critical time for Latinos in America right now. For the Latino community, as we have become the largest minority community in the nation, the need for an organization that uses the legal system to preserve the constitution and constitutional rights is more critical than ever, I am very honored and pleased to lead this organization, and in great part owe that to Alhambra and the education I got there.
This interview was edited and condensed.