|Vilma Socorro Martínez|
|United States Ambassador to Argentina|
September 18, 2009
|Preceded by||Earl Anthony Wayne|
|Born||October 17, 1943
San Antonio, Texas
Vilma Socorro Martínez (born in 1943) is an American lawyer, civil rights activist and diplomat currently serving as the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina. She is the first woman to hold this position.
Life and career
Vilma Socorro Martínez was born to a Mexican American family in San Antonio, Texas, in 1943, and was raised in a climate of certain racial hostility. An honor student in high school, for example, she found herself steered away from academics by a counselor who tried to convince her that someone of her background would be better off attending a trade school than a major university. Martínez ignored that advice and instead enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin.
While working her way through college in the biochemistry lab, Martínez met a professor who recognized her potential. In marked contrast to her high-school counselor, the professor insisted she pursue further education; after receiving her bachelor’s degree, Martínez went on to Columbia Law School, and graduated in 1967.
She then joined the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In her job, she defended a number of poor and minority clients. She also served as the attorney for the petitioner in the case of Griggs v. Duke Power Company, a landmark action that ultimately went before the U.S. Supreme Court and helped establish the doctrine of affirmative action.
After spending several years with the NAACP, Martínez left in 1970 to serve as an equal opportunity counselor for the New York State Division of Human Rights. In this role, she created new rules and procedures governing the rights of employees. She then married a fellow attorney, Stuart Singer, and had two sons, Carlos and Ricardo. In 1971 she joined the firm of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in New York City, where she worked as a labor lawyer. Martínez and one of her colleagues at Cahill, Grace Olivarez, became the first women to join the board of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which was patterned after its counterpart at the NAACP. Soon afterward, in 1973, Martínez was hired as the advocacy organization’s general counsel and president.
Inheriting a nearly-insolvent organization, Martínez developed an operating financial framework that helped save the fledgling advocacy group from insolvency. On the legal front, MALDEF made U.S. civil rights history during Martínez’s tenure as general counsel and president when she directed a program that helped secure an extension of the Voting Rights Act to include Mexican Americans among the groups it protected, overcoming skepticism from both traditional, white conservative groups as well as the NAACP (whose director, Clarence Mitchell, maintained that expanding the Voting Rights Act to include other groups could weaken its protection of blacks). Martínez, however, secured support from other African American groups, most notably the Congressional Black Caucus, and in 1975, Congress agreed to extend the existing provisions of the Voting Rights Act to include Mexican Americans.
Martínez also helped obtain a 1974 ruling guaranteeing that non-English-speaking children in public schools could obtain bilingual education and participated in a number of other activities on behalf of Mexican Americans; from 1975 to 1981, for example, she served as a volunteer consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau, implementing the addition of a question as to the respondent’s Hispanic origin (its far-reaching effects included the redrawing of numerous electoral districts). Remaining at MALDEF, she accepted an invitation from California Governor Jerry Brown in 1976 to join that state’s Board of Regents, remaining there until 1990 and serving a two-year term as chairman.
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