One On 1: Cesar Perales Discusses The Latino Struggle

Alumnus Cesar Perales in NY 1, June 15, 2009

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Civil rights attorney Cesar Perales recently went to Washington, D.C. to offer his opinion on the woman who may become the next Supreme Court justice. It's the latest chapter in a career which includes city, state and federal government work, plus helping those who can't help themselves. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

It's not hard to figure out the most discussed topic in Cesar Perales' office these days.

"I choked up, tears welled up in my eyes when I watched on television as the president presented this woman whom I like and admire so much," says Perales.

The woman is prospective Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, who worked with Perales at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund for 12 years.

"I am in awe of the Supreme Court as is just about every other lawyer that I know. To think that someone I know is going to be one of those nine people. The most exclusive club in America is incredible," says Perales.

Perales has had an impact on the legal world himself, predominantly as a civil rights attorney. In 1972, he helped start the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, now called Latino Justice PRLDEF.

Through the years, Perales has filed suit on topics ranging from bilingual education to civil service requirements. In 1981, he alleged that the New York City Council's redistricting was unfair to minorities.

The Justice Department agreed and stopped the election.

Now, the overwhelming issue is immigration. Perales has brought suit in several New York suburbs, defending the rights of day laborers to congregate.

"We wanted to show that a town who did that would be found to be violating the law and have to pay money. And that's what happened," said Perales.

"We have to deliver the message that the racism in this country is going to cost you," says Perales.

Perales has also made his mark in government. He worked for President Jimmy Carter in the Department of Health and Human Services, then served as former New York governor Mario Cuomo's Commissioner of Social Services for nine years, before returning to work in the city as deputy mayor to Mayor David Dinkins.

But how does one compare the three positions? Perales says the closer you are to the issues, the more demanding the job.

"When I was in Washington in charge of awarding money to the states so that they could carry out social services, it was very different then when I was in New York City where I would get a phone call at 2 a.m. talking about a child that had died as a result of child abuse. That is nerve wracking," said Perales.

Perales first considered becoming a lawyer as a kid, when his dad's mannequin business went bankrupt.

"It really cost us a lot. I'm talking about losing furniture in the house, having it repossessed and things of that nature. It was a very terrible period for our family. And my father once told me that if he had had real legal help this wouldn't have happened," said Perales.

A sound educational mind was most important to Perales' folks as he was growing up -- first in East Harlem and then Corona, Queens.

"If I didn't bring home an A, I'd be quizzed as to why not. Was it something they did not provide me with? Why did I embarrass them by getting them only a B plus?" says Perales.

He attended Regis, an all-scholarship high school run by the Jesuits.

Perales remembers being the only minority student. He says the Jesuits were fine, but some of the students made him feel uncomfortable.

"I resented references to me and you know when we were playing basketball they'd say 'I want chico on my side'," says Perales. "My father understood, and in fact he basically for the first time in my life talked about racism. But at the same time they were very disappointed in me. That I didn't just suck it up and still do well in that school," says Perales.

Perales went on to excel at All Hallows in the Bronx, then City College and at Fordham Law, where he says he was the only Latino in his graduating class.

Perales would one day work for a president, a governor and a mayor. But starting out he worked for poor people on the Lower East Side. He got a call one day to come help a group in East Harlem, the Young Lords.

"The Young Lords were seen as a radical young Puerto Rican group that, actually in that situation had taken over that church and were offering breakfast to the kids," says Perales. "These people had a right to have a lawyer. I was doing my job as a lawyer for a group that I thought was doing good things."

The church and the police wanted the Young Lords out. Perales helped negotiate a peaceful resolution. He built a successful career as a civil rights lawyer and then in government, passionate about his work.

"I suspect the reason my early marriages weren't stable may have something to do with this," says Perales.

Perales and his current wife live in Brooklyn. He has two daughters from a previous marriage and a stepson from his current marriage.

At 68 years old, Perales has experienced what it's like to be Latino in New York for almost seven decades.

"There are so many Latinos in New York today, in this city that it is not, you are not exotic or unique anymore. And I think that's the difference," says Perales.

In 2003, he returned to the organization he helped form, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

And he's watched as one of his younger colleagues, Sonia Sotomayor, has been nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Years ago, Perales chose a career of public service and helping those who couldn't help themselves. Others may have chosen a more lucrative path, but not more rewarding.

"I think I've had a fabulous career. I've enjoyed I think just about every minute of it. So it's not that I don't need to feel superior, I just think that I did the right thing, for me," says Perales. "If you come from humble circumstances, and you do one or two things well, you sort of feel like you can do it."