Remembering and honoring Mario Obledo - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Remembering and honoring Mario Obledo

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Posted: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 5:00 pm

A story is circulating that Jerry Brown, California's attorney general, former governor and current gubernatorial candidate, plans to base his pitch to Latino voters on having marched in the 1970s with Cesar Chavez.

When the Field Poll found his GOP opponent Meg Whitman's standing had jumped from 25 percent to 39 percent among Latino voters, several pundits observed, "So who's Cesar Chavez?" After all, Brown was last governor 27 years ago.

Gary Taylor's book, "Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time -- And Others Don't," explains why. The process of remembering begins when somebody dies and a survivor promotes the story or accomplishments of the deceased so that others don't forget. Stories about success spread until they become part of the culture and survive as memory through each retelling. That is how we accumulate knowledge and understanding and even wisdom sometimes.

The survival of remembering is a lot like natural selection in evolution. Yet, most worthy accomplishment stories die for lack of someone to do the retelling.

After Brown followed Ronald Reagan as California governor in 1975, he pulled Mario Obledo away from a Harvard Law professorship by appointing him secretary of health and welfare. Obledo had been a co-founder in 1968 of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and had helped set a new civil rights platform for the nation.

He also pioneered the Albert Armendariz defense, named for a law student at the University of Texas Law School who brought an action in the United States District Court that led to student deferments during the draft in the late 1960s. Obledo, himself a veteran, was often around for those who needed representation. As counsel for a group of drug-abuse workers, he helped establish one of the first national organizations to advocate for more treatment and less criminalization.

Obledo's open-door policy was universally known. Many got in to see him (especially good, humble, salt-of-the-earth types with reasonable beefs) who otherwise would never have made it past a receptionist intern on the first floor. If a Spanish-speaker or foreign-language-speaking person called, he wanted that person responded to in his native language. "Just in case my mother calls," he explained.

Then a series of stinging accusations rocked Sacramento. It was alleged that the newfound access to government was something else. Inferences were made to connect state support for drug-rehabilitation programs to a prison gang, then to organized crime and a drug-related murder. All this was tied to Obledo's tenure in office because a murder victim had made an appointment to see an Obledo aide in Sacramento.

The Readers Digest was chief among media enflaming the story, along with some local Sacramento newspapers that passed along the sensationalistic, unsubstantiated rumors and allegations like tabloid news and other histrionics.

The governor, the secretary himself, the attorney general, a regulatory commission and several newspapers undertook lengthy investigations. All of them, of course, uncovered absolutely no wrongdoing. The intended guilt-by-association assertions did not even leave behind the usual cow-pie smell. Obledo was that clean.

So why would serious professional people, who are not circus clowns, go to such absurd lengths to construct such an imaginary story. Taylor answers that others compete against a version of reality at odds with their point of view. Heroic stories survive after the hero dies -- like those passed on by Plato, St. Paul, and James Boswell -- because the survivors pass along the story well enough to make it part of the culture.

That's why it's important to remember Mario Obledo, who fought the good fight and who won for all of us. He was an originating member of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, a successor group of Rev. Martin Luther King's crusades, and Obledo served as national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998 by President Bill Clinton for his many accomplishments. Citizen Obledo passed away Aug. 19, at age 78, in Sacramento.

Among his survivors, I hope, are those who will retell his story.

Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at

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