Obledo, Mario Guerra (1932–2010)

By: Kumail Durrani

Type: Biography

Published: January 15, 2019

Mario Guerra Obledo, attorney, Latino civil rights leader, and one of the cofounders of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), was born in San Antonio, Texas, on April 9, 1932. He was the son of Jesús Perez Obledo (a painter) and Concepción (Guerra) Obledo (a housekeeper). Growing up in San Antonio’s West Side and one of thirteen children, Obledo had a tumultuous childhood that included the death of his father when Mario was only five years old. With four of his brothers arrested for criminal activities involving burglary and narcotics, Obledo heeded his mother’s emphasis on the value of an education while she supported her family with the help of a federal assistance program. His mother’s encouragement helped him break away from gang culture and focus on school. He graduated from Fox Tech High School.

In fall 1949 Obledo enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a pharmaceutical degree. Two years later, however, he decided to enlist in the U. S. Navy to fight in the Korean War. After his military stint as a radar technician, he returned to his university studies in Austin. At UT, he was an officer in the campus chapter of the National Honorary Pharmaceutical Fraternity. He also established a chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on campus and attended that organization’s state convention in 1955. Obledo graduated with a bachelor of sciences degree in pharmacy in 1957. He subsequently enrolled in law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. He worked as a pharmacist while he studied law and graduated in 1960. He established a private practice in San Antonio until 1965 when he went to work for the Texas attorney general’s office in Austin.

By 1968 Obledo joined Pete Tijerina, a fellow LULAC member, to found MALDEF, an organization that was to lead the legal fight for Mexican American rights. Tijerina served as the executive director and Obledo as the first general counsel of the fledgling organization. Principal funding was provided by the Ford Foundation. In 1970, at the request of the Ford Foundation, MALDEF relocated its headquarters from San Antonio to San Francisco, California, and Obledo was named executive director. Under his direction, MALDEF grew tremendously and established branch offices in Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C. Obledo forged ties with other national groups and shifted focus away from legal aid toward pursuing United States Supreme Court cases on constitutional issues related to job discrimination, desegregation, and voting rights.

Obledo resigned from MALDEF in 1973 and returned to private practice. He became a teaching fellow at the Harvard Law School in 1974. In 1975 California’s Governor Jerry Brown appointed Obledo as the head of the California Department of Health and Welfare. The highest-ranking Hispanic state official, Obledo served from 1975 to 1982. In 1982 he made an unsuccessful bid to secure the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California. He then served as the president of LULAC from 1983 to 1985. During his tenure he garnered much media coverage of social and economic concerns of Mexican Americans, but he was subject to criticism when he headed a group of LULAC officials to Cuba in the effort to establish better relations with the Communist country.

Obledo was a member of the Hispanic National Bar Association, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, and the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations. Known as the “Godfather of the Latino Movement,” he received national recognition for his service and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Mario Guerro Obledo was married twice during his lifetime. He married Mary Robles on July 14, 1955, and they had three children. They later divorced, and he married Keda Alcala. At the age of seventy-eight, Obledo passed away from a heart attack on August 18, 2010, in Sacramento, California. A memorial service for him was later held at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio.

Raquel C. Garza, “Pedro ‘Pete’ Tijerina, Jr.,” VOCES Oral History Project, University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin (https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/voces/template-stories-indiv.html?work_urn=urn%3Autlol%3Awwlatin.104&work_title=Tijerina%2C+Jr.%2C+Pedro%22Pete%22), accessed January 11, 2019. Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2010. Benjamin Márquez, LULAC: The Evolution of a Mexican American Political Organization (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993). Matt S. Meier and Margo Gutiérrez, Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000). Karen O'Connor and Lee Epstein, “A Legal Voice for The Chicano Community: The Activities of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1968–82,” Social Science Quarterly 65 (June 1984). San Antonio Express-News, August 23, 24, 2010; September 6, 2010. 

  • Education
  • Educators
  • Law and Business
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Activists
  • Lawyers, Civil Rights Activists, and Legislators
  • Politics and Government
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Lawyers
  • Civil Rights, Civil, and Constitutional Law
  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kumail Durrani, “Obledo, Mario Guerra,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/obledo-mario-guerra.

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January 15, 2019

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