November 21, 2001

Latino Attorney Honored by Farm Workers' Rights Group

San Diego Latino activist and civil rights attorney, Maurice Jourdane was recently recognized by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) for his work empowering farm workers and their families. The organization celebrated its 35th anniversary this year and says it wanted to recognize Jourdane because his legal work contributed so much to the Latino community.

Civil rights attorney, Maurice Jourdane (right) honored by California Rural Legal Assistance. (Individual to the left unidentified.)

Jourdane's two lawsuits that had the most significant impact on Latino farm workers were Dianna v. Board of Education and Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety. Both of these cases were filed in the 1970s. While working at CRLA, Jourdane recalls a mother who came to the office to complain that her daughter was placed in a class for the mentally retarded, when she showed no signs of developmental delays.

When CRLA investigated, it found that a large percentage of the kids in that special education class were children of Hispanic farm workers. "None of these kids seemed retarded, but they didn't speak English very well and tested poorly on the IQ test," which was administered in English, says Jour-dane. "So we went to the school board who sent us to Sacramento where we were told that kids who tested below a 70 on the IQ test were considered retarded, period," he says. "We then filed a lawsuit and ultimately what happened was the judge ordered the state to stop testing children in a language they didn't speak." As a result of this case, 55,000 non-English speaking children were released from special education programs in California and placed in mainstream classes. "This is important because if a child is in a slow learning class, he will learn slowly," says Jourdane. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, just like when you expect kids to do well and be smart, they are."

The organization does not know how many of the original none plaintiffs went to college or graduate school. Certainly, many of the 55,000 students affected pursued higher education. Jourdane refuses to accept credit for the helping make the academic success of these Hispanic students possible. "It felt really good to be recognized by CRLA, but it's the farm workers whose children went through this, and suffered and fought to change the law," he says. "I just happened to be a lawyer who was at the right place at the right time. This is just part of normal life. You see something wrong and you do something about it." This advocate's philosophy was an integral part of Jourdane's success in outlawing the "short handled hoe" in California, a case which took five years to resolve.

"We saw so many farm workers with back problems because of the short handled hoe," explains Jourdane. "Because the handle is only 12 inches, workers have to stoop, which destroys their backs." Jourdane says that CRLA co-worker Hector De La Rosa told him that if he really wanted to help farm workers, he'd work to outlaw the short handled hoe. "Having experienced the back pain due to the short handled hoe, I remember one day trying to explain the pain and Mo had no clue what I was talking about," says De La Rosa. "It was then I decided he needed to experience first-hand the pain and suffering the farm workers went through."

Though it was more than thirty years ago, Jourdane remembers his experience. "I was in pretty good shape back then, but after about an hour, it was torture," he says. This is why the tool has been dubbed "la herramienta del Diablo" (the devil's instrument).

In Carmona v. Division of Industrial Safety, Jourdane and the CRLA argued that the short handled hoe was an "unsafe hand tool" which was prohibited by law. At first, the organization was told that this regulation only applied to broken tools, but ultimately, the CRLA won at the California Supreme Court. Agribusiness had hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, according to Jourdane. "What were they going to do with all of these short handled hoes they had already bought?"
Bo Solis, a San Diego attorney who attended the event said that recognizing the CRLA was meaningful for him because "these cases were important to Latino farm worker cases and heightened our awareness out the power of Latinos, our voice in politics, business and law," says Solis. "A victory for them was a victory for all of us" because this launched the Latino empowerment movement.

The annual fund raiser for the CRLA was hosted at the home of Thomas and Lorna Saiz. Mr. Saiz is the managing partner of Calderon Jaham & Osborn Certified Public Accountants and treasurer of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "It means a great deal to Calderon Jaham and Osborn, and my family to help host an event for an organization that makes such a positive difference in the lives of the Hispanic community," he says. "The work of CRLA and Maurice Jourdane has helped the community make significant strides in expanding educational and economic opportunities."

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