Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality
First Law Center on Latino and Latina Rights
Debuts at CUNY Law
>> A Latina agent for a real estate company is fired for speaking Spanish to a Latino coworker at the company coffee stand. The same employer allows her to speak to potential clients in Spanish and thus benefits from her language skills.
>> A husband and wife looking for a nice neighborhood in which to raise their children are denied housing because they are Puerto Rican. The father is a sanitation worker in New York City who helps clean streets where his family cannot live.
>> Latino children are taught in decrepit school buildings, without updated books and sufficient school materials, by teachers who lack significant teaching experience. When local parents campaign to become members of the local school board to effect change, they face daunting obstacles at the polls, including claims of voter fraud.
Cases like these have been at the heart of Professor Jenny Rivera's work since she began her legal career working for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Homeless Family Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society. Her dedication to law reform and her love of teaching and academic engagement brought her to CUNY School of Law. Rivera's commitment to equality and enforcing and expanding civil rights drove her decision to take a leave of absence in 2007 from the Law School to serve as Special Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights in the New York State Attorney General's Office.
Now, back at CUNY Law, Rivera is launching what is believed to be the first center of its type: an academic and scholarship- rich institution that will meld community service and educational activities to improve the quality of legal care provided to Latinos and Latinas in the city, state, nation, and around the world. The Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality (CLORE) will offer courses at CUNY Law, possibly open to students from other institutions, that will highlight issues that impact Latinos and Latinas.
Cases involving discrimination based on national origin cry out for justice and fairness, Rivera says. "Employment discrimination and the abuse of Latino and Latina employees who are essential to so many businesses are a daily reality. On the one hand, companies seeking to profit from the Latino community benefit from Latino and Latina workers because they want Latino business and need low-wage employees," Rivera notes. "On the other hand, they often make working life miserable for their Latino and Latina employees, and put them at risk for termination. This discrimination and abuse must be stopped."
Advocates in the Latino legal community agree that a center like CLORE is needed. "Too many of us in the law see the civil rights struggle as something in the past. The fact is that the Latino community is facing its own set of civil rights issues that need the attention of a Center such as this one now," said Cesar A. Perales, president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. "Under Jenny's leadership the Center will undoubtedly make a major contribution to the field of Latino civil rights."
Topics to be addressed by CLORE include language and women's rights, as well as educational equity, employment discrimination, voting rights, and immigrants' rights, to name a few.
"There are universities with vast course offerings on the social and political status of Latinos, Latino literature or history, libraries with materials on Latinos, and a growing body of legal scholarship on Latinos and Latinas," Rivera notes. Research organizations, for instance, offer detailed data on the Latino population in the United States. "Our focus is on progressive legal approaches to addressing issues that impact Latinos and Latinas, developed with the community. We are also focusing on getting more and better legal services to the Latino community." Rivera herself knows first-hand how Latinos and Latinas have suffered in the United States and in New York City. She grew up with her single mother on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in the days when that section of the city was populated by poor and working-class families from a variety of racial and ethnic groups; those days of the 1960s and 1970s were long before the Lower East Side was home to chic bars and highly-rated restaurants. Rivera remembers hearing gunshots in her neighborhood, and the tenement apartment where she lived was burglarized. Her mother, she says, constantly kept an eye out the window to make sure that Rivera's brother got home safely. (See related article, Professor Jenny Rivera: A No-Nonsense Attorney with a Passion to Teach ).
(above) Professor Jenny Rivera, center, listens to the ideas of others who are helping to launch CLORE. From left: Research Assistant Rachel Seger (3L); Administrative Assistant Maggie Ruperto; Professor and Librarian Raquel Gabriel; and Research Assistant Candy Velazquez (2L).
The Center will have multiple audiences: attorneys, academics, community activists, students, and policymakers. Rivera's long-term goal also includes providing legal resources to the private Bar to increase the number of attorneys representing clients in civil rights cases.
The need for the Center from a demographic perspective is clear, Rivera says. Latinos and Latinas currently comprise the largest ethnic group in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Latinos and Latinas represented 13 percent (35.3 million) of the population. At the current growth rate, by 2050, Latinos and Latinas will have increased to 29 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Despite the Latino community's size and long-term presence in the United States, Latinos and Latinas continue to be targets for many types of discrimination, Rivera says. For example, there has been an increase in hate crimes, negative profiling by local law enforcement, rejection of constitutional and statutory protections at the workplace, at home and in school, and the popular movement to "close the borders" to Latino and Latina immigrants, Rivera notes.
The Center's Agenda
The Center's activities will be broad. It will be committed to community-based solutions to legal problems, developing opportunities for dialogue with advocates and members of the legal community, as well as striving to enhance the participation of Latinos and Latinas in the democratic process. The Center will seek to increase public awareness of the legal issues of importance to the Latino community.
The Center's plans include the establishment of a special collection of scholarship and interdisciplinary materials on Latino legal issues at the CUNY School of Law library; academic forums and colloquia; a speaker series on the legal and socio-political status of Latinos and Latinas; scholarship on issues impacting the Latino community; legal issues workshops in communities around the city; and litigation-related and scholarly work on two discreet projects focused on language-based national origin discrimination (Language Access Project) and gender-based discrimination (Gender Equity Project).
The Center will begin its work with Rivera as director and two student fellows from CUNY Law. The fellows will assist Rivera with scholarship projects, year-round community events, and a conference, to be held during Hispanic Heritage Month, on legal access for Latinos and Latinas in the United States.