Chicano civil rights attorney discusses the roots of social change

Lightmary Flores

Long-time Whittier resident and Chicano civil rights attorney Miguel F. García was invited by the Latino Studies program to openly discuss his most important career milestones and his role in the Chicano movement. Several students attended as part of their Introduction to U.S. Latino Studies last Wednesday evening.

Professor of Spanish and Latino Studies Sonia Gonzalez introduced Garcia, who she met months prior to his invitation, to dine in Dezember House with students.  “I met Miguel Garcia a couple months ago and have grown to admire him and really appreciate his friendship. I thought it would be a great way for my students to put both their education and social advocacy into perspective,” Gonzalez said. 

Garcia grew up speaking only Spanish as a young kid and came to South Central at the age of 10 from Jalisco, Mexico. “As a little Mexican kid who grew up in the ghetto in a family who only knew how to speak Spanish and loved tamales, it sticks with you,” Garcia said with a hearty laugh. 

After graduating from Cal State Los Angeles, Garcia noticed the lack of diversity at Loyola Law School as one out of two Latinos enrolled there. While attending Loyola Law School, García became active in several advocacy groups, including Social Action for Latinos for Unity Development (SALUD), Chicano Law Students Association, and Católicos por la Raza. He was also staff and Senior Attorney for the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice from 1973 to 1975. 

Garcia was an advocate for the United Farm Workers (UFW) during the time when Cesar Chavez was indicted. It was a time, as he told students, when Latinos were jailed for picketing for their rights. Garcia was an official for a case in Kern County, known as Murgia vs Municipal Court of Bakersfield. This case safeguarded UFW members and supported all individuals under federal and state protection from being convicted “under intentional and purposeful” discrimination.  “I was defender of long-time activist Carlos Montes, co-founder of the Brown Berets and one the participants of East L.A. Blowout in 1977, who had been previously indicted for conspiracy to commit arson, cutting electrical wires in 1969 against the governor at the time: Ronald Reagan,” Garcia said. “The jury found that the officers used discriminatory enforcement against union workers.” 

More recently, Garcia was one of the plaintiffs in a 2014 lawsuit filed against the City of Whittier that alleged that Whittier’s at-large voting system prevented Latinos from being elected to City Council. “This led to a district-based system and finally to the election of the second Latino Council member in Whittier City’s history, Josue Alvarado,” said Garcia.

Garcia recalled one of his most important cases that was brought in front of the California Supreme Court. One of the cases established the “Pitchess Motion” (Pitchess v. Superior Court), which allows access to an officer’s personal information when there is an allegation of excessive force. Because of this Supreme Court decision, which affected state law as Gonzalez commented after, a defendant has a right to information about officer misconduct or dishonesty.

Junior Political Science major David Rodriguez gained a lot of insight from the speaker as an aspiring lawyer himself. “Talking to Miguel Garcia was a great privilege,” Rodriguez said. “I really found this experience to be very beneficial. Learning from his experience has given me a better understanding of how Latinos were treated in the past and what they did to change our culture.”

Political Science major Maria Rodriguez found many parallels in Garcia’s talk to her discussions in class. “Miguel Garcia was very welcoming and has a great personality,” Rodriguez said. “He talked about the legacy of important activists like Caesar Chavez and how he worked alongside them to defend the Latino communities.”

Garcia concluded his talk by highlighting the importance of diversity in higher education and in the workforce throughout the talk. “Education is so important because as you all go into the workforce, all that acquired knowledge of the system could be applied to help protect the rights of our citizens and to educate them,” Garcia said. “Every breath we take is a blessing, and during these hard times America is facing, we need to move forward and do something and not just sit on the sidelines.”