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A Mexican American lawyer’s prayer, and a promise

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In 1943, John J. Herrera walked into La Virgen de Guadalupe Church in Houston’s East End a broke man. The 33-year-old had earned his money as a migrant worker, a city ditch digger and now worked as a cabbie. But Herrera, a descendent of a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, wanted to dramatically change his future and the future of his growing family.

The need to work had forced the Louisiana-born Herrera to delay his high school graduation by three years. Still, Herrera was somehow able to finish his course work at the South Texas College of Law. All that now stood between Herrera and his desire to become one of just a handful of Mexican American lawyers in Texas was passing the Texas Bar Exam. He had already taken it two previous times.

His fellow cabbies took a collection. They raised enough money for Herrera to take time off and study for six weeks for the bar. With the money, Herrera drove his family to Corpus Christi, Texas to drop them off so he could put himself in total seclusion. 

He also paid a visit to La Virgen de Guadalupe. 

The Houston church had played a key role among city’s growing Mexican American population since opening in 1912.  In its early days, it served Mexican refugees escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution and had since become the gathering place for one of the city’s most discriminated group of residents.

Once inside, Herrera knelt down and spoke to the Patron Saint of the Motherland. He asked for Her help to passing the bar. He had nowhere else to turn. In return, the Houston cabbie promised, he would always worked to serve the poor, the less fortunate, and “the people.” Grant me the strength, he pleaded, and he would always honor this vow. 

Months later, his 8-year-old son, Mike Herrera, was outside the family’s home when the postman arrived. He grabbed the letters to hand to his father and mother who anxiously took the mail from his hand. “I thought my mom was just getting another letter,” Mike Herrera remembered. “She wrote a lot of letters.”

A postcard had arrive. Herrera and his wife hugged, then begin to cry. The son, confused, tugged his mom. No, she told him. We’re not crying because we’re sad. Sometimes grown people cry because they are happy.

The cabbie was now a lawyer.

Throughout his career, Herrera would largely serve Mexican American clients from Houston to South Texas. He’d work on Saturdays, since that was the only time workers were able to see him, and he’d become an active member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, then the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group. When he saw episodes of discrimination, he spoke out despite threats of violence.

Eleven years after making his promise to La Virgen, Herrera was standing before the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a three-lawyer team seeking to end a ban against Mexican Americans serving on juries in some parts of Texas. They were the first group of Latinos to ever argue a case of discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Twenty years later, Herrera would introduce President John F. Kennedy to an excited crowd of Mexican American civil rights leaders in Houston’s Rice Hotel in what would later be described as the first address by a sitting president to a Latino group. The introduction came just hours before the president was assassinated.

Some historians have often lamented the lack of religious conviction in the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement compared to the more well-known black Civil Rights Movement. But that assessment fails to consider the deeply religious inspirations of John J. Herrera, G.I. Forum founder Dr. Hector P. Garcia, and later, land grant activist Reies Lopez Tijerina (a former Pentecostal preacher). This ethos among key figures of the movement is what sparked them into action and kept them pressing despite immeasurable odds.  

In 1943, a promise was made and fulfilled. And it’s what drove one civil rights lawyer to continue to press for change, even when the world around him let him know he likely would never see, nor fully understand, the effects of his work.

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