Joaquin G. Avila ’73 was honored with the Harvard Law School Association (HLSA) Award at a ceremony during the Harvard Law School Celebration of Latino Alumni on Sept. 29. A nationally recognized expert on Latino voting rights, Avila is the distinguished practitioner in residence and director of the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative at Seattle University School of Law.
In his presentation of the award, Paul Perito ’64, president of the Harvard Law School Alumni Association, said: “The HLSA is proud and grateful to Joaquin, for his unceasing efforts to protecting minority rights, voting rights, especially on behalf of Latino citizens. This man stood against the tide. He advocated issues which were unpopular to advocate.”
Avila, who is recovering from a stroke, was unable to travel to Cambridge to accept his award. Accepting the award on his behalf, Regina T. Montoya ’79 recalled meeting Avila in the early 1970s, while she was still in high school in New Mexico. Because of his advice, she decided to attend Wellesley College and eventually go on to Harvard Law School. She said Avila’s outreach to the Latino community influenced many students to attend elite schools and advocate for their communities.
In addition to establishing a private practice focusing exclusively on minority voting rights, Avila spearheaded various legislative efforts in California to make the electoral process more accessible to Latinos, including the passage of the 2001 California State Voting Rights Act. The only state voting rights act in the nation, the Act permits challenges to discriminatory at-large methods of elections in state courts without requiring proof of a host of evidentiary factors such as are required under the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In a recorded acceptance speech, he recalled his first observations of voting rights as a young boy living in Compton, Calif., in the 1950’s. With his aunt, he watched news coverage of a mob chasing an elderly black person who was trying to register to vote. “I could not understand why that was the case. My aunt started to shed a tear and it really moved me very much. And to this day I still remember that.”
He also thanked the law school for the education and foundation on which he built his career. Avila spoke of the value of law school, the importance of the skills he learned at HLS and excelling as much as possible in the use of those skills. He said that while “doing this work has become difficult,” he will endeavor to fulfill the “majestic purpose of the 15th amendment” and achieve his goal of equal rates of voter participation and registration among all races.
Avila has received numerous awards, including the Vanguard Public Foundation’s Social Justice Sabbatical for his work providing political access to minority communities. Most recently, he received the President’s Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Ohtli Award from the Mexican government.
The Harvard Law School Association Award (HLSA) recognizes extraordinary service to the legal profession, society or to HLS. The HLSA designates up to four Award recipients per year. HLS alumni, HLS faculty and Friends of HLS are eligible for the award.