Judge Richard Ibañez, Los Angeles Civic Pioneer

Richard A. Ibañez, 1910–2007, was an early Mexican American attorney who was involved in a variety of civic causes in Southern California. Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown named him to the bench in the 1960s.

The liberal attorney identified with the suffering and discrimination faced by Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children, yet his story was atypical.

The first large cohort of Mexicans fled to California to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917) and the Cristo Revolt in the 1920s, wherein supporters of the Catholic Church took up arms in a failed effort to overthrow the new secular, constitutional government.

When President Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, most Mexicans had been in California for a relatively short period; many lived in segregated colonies (later renamed barrios). Few had become naturalized citizens.

In contrast, Ibañez graduated from UCLA in 1932 and went on to earn a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley.

Ibañez’s Mexican father had come to the United States as a Protestant missionary around 1890. Here, he married a Californian who traced her linage in the region to the Spanish and Mexican periods that preceded statehood in 1850.

On May 19, 1997, I interviewed the distinguished jurist. He was then living in a highrise in downtown Los Angeles. Though retired from the bench, he was still part of the court system (filling in as a judge when needed). He was also pursuing a lifetime interest in formal Spanish, as well as Spanish plays and novels.

I asked about his father—how he made it to Los Angeles.

He started out in El Paso. My father was a clergyman. He was from the Presbyterian Church of National Missions. So his goal was to go to places where there was a Spanish-speaking community, mostly Mexicans, and start a church. He started one in El Paso, then he started one here in Los Angeles. I was a child; it was around 1913, at the Plaza. He started a church in San Gabriel, San Diego, Pomona, La Verne. That was the last one he started.

Ibañez was proud of his older sister, Dora Ibañez, a graduate of Pomona College, who was involved in the Mexican American Movement (MAM) in the 1930s.

My sister is mentioned in [George J. Sánchez’s] Becoming Mexican American, on page 63. My sister was very militant in the sense she wanted the Spanish-speaking people to establish their rights as American citizens.

As a young attorney in the late 1930s, Ibañez moved to Upland, a conservative small town in San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles, where he was elected to the city council.

I completely integrated. There were no Mexicans who could vote for me. I was very square. I belonged to the Rotary Club. I was accepted. I was elected to the city council. I was elected mayor pro tem. I was building up my law practice. Then came Uncle Sam. When I came out of the war [World War II], I decided not to go back. I came to Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles Ibañez became active in liberal and progressive politics. In the process he established himself as one of the best-known Latino attorneys. He interacted with civic leaders and activists from a variety of backgrounds.

I was a partner of Robert W. Kenney. He had been attorney general [in California from 1943 to 1947]. He was quite a liberal . . . . He had a significant influence on my life . . .  I became a friend of Carey McWilliams. He likewise had a big influence on my life.

Among the groups in which Ibañez became involved after the war was the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA), in which Kenney was a leading figure. PCA merged into the Progressive Party that supported Henry Wallace for president in November 1948.

In those days it was a strong liberal group. . . . Very militant. Not in respect to Latinos, [but] sensitive to the class that needs help as was demonstrated by Roosevelt: Social Security, better housing, and so forth. I was criticized as a Red because I spoke many times in favor of housing.

In June 1948, PCA supported his campaign for the nonpartisan post of superior court judge. The Mexican American community united around his candidacy, as did individuals from other Spanish-speaking backgrounds. “Frank Fouce [a Spaniard] had a theater [in downtown Los Angeles that showed Mexican movies] and before every session I had a chance to give a speech,”recalled Ibañez. Other prominent supporters included Community Services Organization president (and later Congressman) Edward Roybal. The campaign also attracted support from a wide swath of liberal, labor, and leftist activists from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Despite such efforts, he lost to the incumbent, who was a conservative Republican.

Appointed to the bench in the 1960s, Richard Ibañez ultimately served with distinction.

Judge Ibañez stands out as a long serving judge and because he among the earliest Mexican American elected officials in California, one of only a handful to serve prior to World War II.

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