September 28, 2001

Juan Figueroa, An Ardent Defender of Civil Rights For Latinos

New York — Throughout his long career as a community organizer, assistant attorney general, state legislator and head of nonprofit organization, Juan Figueroa has championed the cause of civil rights for Latinos.

"People need to be treated with dignity, whether it be in the context of a labor dispute, politics, or a neighborhood squabble with local government," Figueroa says.

The 47-year-old Figueroa was the first Puerto Rican to represent the Connecticut General Assembly's Third District in Hartford. While in office, from 1989 to 1993, Figueroa helped create groundbreaking legislation in the areas of housing, language rights and welfare reform, and defeat a series of proposed English-only legislative initiatives.

Since 1993, Figueroa has served as president and general counsel of the Puerto Rican Legal and Education Fund. Through class-action litigation, the New York-based nonprofit organization combats discrimination in the areas of employment, voting, housing, language and women's rights.

Figueroa took on the task of heading PRLDEF to continue doing what he enjoys most: making a difference in the lives of Latinos.

Exercising leadership, pushing an issue, organizing a meeting, pulling people together -- I use those skills all the time," he says. "You can't make a difference on an issue unless you move people."

Recently, he was instrumental in revamping PRLDEF's infrastructure, which included a merger with the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. The newly expanded PRLDEF has allowed Figueroa a larger role in the public policy arena, and has given PRLDEF a national profile.

"We can engage in battles either in the courtroom or outside the courtroom," he says, adding that the public policy component of PRLDEF allows the organization to get to the root of any problem via research and analysis.

Figueroa, a frequent guest on national news programs, has a resume filled with impressive milestone. When asked about his career highlights, Figueroa lists his five-year term as assistant attorney general in Connecticut, and serving in the state legislature. As assistant attorney general, Figueroa championed environmental protection issues, and day-care licensing, among other issues relevant to his Connecticut constituents.

During his three terms as state representative of Con-necticut's Third District in Hartford, Figueroa chaired the Housing and Human Services Committee, prevented deep cuts in the welfare budget, and helped pass bills providing assistance to families wanting to move into better neighborhoods.

"He always identified with the progressive movement, the gay community, and Latinos, says Raul Garcia, a lawyer who Figueroa hired as a legislative assistant in the General Assembly in Hartford, and later mentored through law school. "He's a successful man, but more than that, he's always tried to help people."

One of Figueroa's goals is to expand the reach of PRLDEF's programs throughout the mainland and in Puerto Rico. To do this, he is working to expand its corporate sector support and more importantly, gain support from the community PRLDEF serves. Today, individual donations and workplace giving through America's charities constitute three to four percent of PRLDEF's budget. His objective is to increase that amount to about 15 percent.

In the corporate sector, he applauds AT&T for its continued support of PRLDEF over the years.

"I've had a long-time relationship with AT&&, because AT&T has valued our work and realized our significance and relevancy," he says. "When we asked for support for a policy position in 1994, AT&T gave us a $25,000 grant. Back then, that was a significant amount of money, especially since it was earmarked for a program, and not a special event."

Since then, AT&T has provided PRLDEF with several $50,000 grants for its education division, which provides Latino and other minority law students an array of low-cost and free educational support programs. PRLDEF responds to more than 4,000 requests annually and provides direct services to approximately 1,300 students across the United States, thanks in part to the financial support of corporation such as AT&T.

Born and raised in the fields of Ciales, Puerto Rico, Figue-roa recalls an idyllic childhood helping his grandmother pick, peel, dry, roast and grind coffee. He says achieving his law degree is among his proudest accomplishments, and he credits his tenant-farmer grandfather with inspiring him to do so. Figueroa recalls fondly that when he was about six years old, his grandfather started taking him into town on horseback, telling everyone they met that his grandson was going to grow up to be a lawyer.

"About 24 years later, it all clicked for me, and I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer - perhaps because my grandfather had already programmed me."

Figueroa received his law degree from Santa Clara University in California in 1982. He later received an honorary doctorate from CUNY Law School in New York.

His greatest challenge, Figueroa says, was relocating from the warmth of his beloved island to Minnesota, with its bitterly cold winters, to pursue his undergraduate studies at Macalester College in St. Paul. He graduated in 1977. "Adjusting to a new climate and culture was tough," he says.

That was nearly 30 years ago, and Figueroa, who lives in New York City with his wife of 25 years, Helene, and his 19-year-old daughter, Taina, looks forward to moving back to Puerto Rico someday.

In the meantime, Figueroa spends his spare time mentoring children and law students, encouraging them to push the envelope.

"We, as Latinos, often do not have family members who are doctors, lawyers and other professional role models," he says. "Buy all we need is attention, focus, discipline and the desire to achieve. If you have those ingredients, you can become the president of the United States, or perhaps a good civil rights attorney. We all have the capacity.

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