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Unsung Heroes Hispanic Heritage Month

Gustavo 'Gus' Garcia: Honoring A Civil Rights Activist And Legal Pioneer

Gustavo "Gus" Garcia was a trailblazing attorney — but a decade after arguing the landmark case Hernandez v. Texas before the Supreme Court in 1954, the 48-year-old was dead.

By Constance Johnson
Attorney Gustavo Garcia on the left.

The night before the biggest moment of his legal career, Gustavo “Gus” Garcia — the man Thurgood Marshall dubbed the “silver tongued orator” — got drunk.

Hours later, on the morning of January 11, 1954, after his colleagues had tossed him in the shower fully clothed to sober him up, Garcia showed up at the Supreme Court hungover. He sat listlessly through the proceedings for Hernandez v. Texas until it was his turned to address the justices.

By the time Garcia spoke, his team had nearly exhausted their allotted time and, by all accounts, he dazzled them.

The justices were spellbound, and when the red light flashed to signal the end of his presentation, Chief Justice Earl Warren did something that had never happened before in the history of the nation’s highest court: He told Garcia to keep speaking, which he did for another 16 minutes.

“I argued in front of the justices for 40 minutes and Gus summed up,” Carlos Cardena, Garcia’s co-counsel, told a newspaper in 1964. “I’ll never forget it. He used every device in the lawyer’s bag of tricks, from easy facility of speech and legal sharpness to anger, sarcasm, the soft voice, dramatic pause and deft touch of humor.”

More than two weeks before the Supreme Court delivered its opinion, Garcia discussed the case on a San Antonio radio program, according to the PBS documentary, “A Class Apart.”

“I am glad I was able to tell the Supreme Court justices that they were a little confused in thinking that we are all ‘wetbacks’ in Houston, San Antonio and everywhere else. Because let's remember that back East, in New York and Washington they don't understand our problems. They don't know about the three million Mexicans who live in the Southwest.

Four months later — on May 3 — in an unanimous opinion written by Warren, the murder conviction of Pete Hernandez was overturned.

The court found that his constitutional rights were violated because there was no one of Mexican descent on the jury that tried and convicted him for the murder of Joe Espinoza in 1951. Garcia and his legal team proved that, while 14 percent of the people of Jackson County had Mexican or Latin-American surnames, none had ever been allowed to vote or serve on a jury. 

The state of Texas had unsuccessfully argued that, since Mexicans were considered “white,” they did not face racial discrimination. 

Garcia and Cadena  — as part of a legal team that also included Maury Maverick, Sr. and John J. Herrera — were able to prove that those of Mexican descent faced rampant discrimination in Texas and were treated quite different from whites. The attorneys noted that for years school children were required to attend separate schools through grades 1 to 4, and that had only recently changed because of him. (Garcia had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens against the Bastrop Independent School District and three other school districts, challenging the segregated school system for Mexican Americans, which he won.)

The courthouse in Edna where the Hernandez case was first tried had two men’s bathrooms: One was unmarked and the other had two signs that read “Colored Men” and “Hombres Aquí" (Men here).

Tabet Alvarado, 92 — a bar owner who befriended Garcia in the 1950s — told Oxygen.com that the civil rights pioneer obtained the list of the voting records dating back 10 years from a woman he had dated. Alvarado claims that during a pre-trial hearing, Garcia had stuffed the list inside a piñata, and placed the piñata on top of his table.

“The prosecutor for the state of Texas asks the judge, ‘What’s this Mexican doing with a piñata?’ The judge said, ‘You know how these Mexicans are. He’s probably going to a party right after this, so he can have that piñata there.’” Alvarado said.

Garcia then went on to argue to the judge that Mexican Americans had never been allowed to serve on a jury in the county, and the prosecutor told Garcia that he had no proof because he had been denied those records.

Alvarado said that’s when Garcia removed a hammer from his suit jacket and broke the piñata, revealing the list of names.

The court denied his motion, and Hernandez was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in jail. He was tried and convicted, again, after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

The Hernandez case was one of the first times the Supreme Court had ruled on a civil rights case involving Mexican Americans. It was also the first time a team of Mexican American lawyers had argued and won a case before the Supreme Court. (Decades later, the New York Times called it “A quiet victory for civil rights.”)

“This is very rich history,” Texas State Senator Sylvia R. Garcia (no relation) told NBC News in 2017. “It’s not Mexican American History, it is legal history. The Hernandez case set new grounds for selecting juries, saying they had to reflect the population.”

It was decided two weeks before Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that declared school segregation – separate but equal – unconstitutional. The Hernandez decision was overshadowed, historically, by the Brown one. Despite the Supreme Court rulings, it would take decades before school segregation and jury discrimination ended.  

By the time the Hernandez case had reached the Supreme Court, Garcia's struggles with alcohol were well known. Some activists wanted him removed from the case; fearful his increasingly erratic behavior could cost them an important victory.  But his fellow attorneys refused, arguing that he was desperately needed, according to Professor Ignacio Garcia, author of “White But Not Equal: Mexican Americans, Jury Discrimination, and the Supreme Court.”

He told Oxygen.com that Garcia had caused problems during a dinner meeting with another group of more experienced attorneys to discuss Supreme Court protocol. Garcia apparently got drunk and openly flirted with the wife of one of the men and the meeting ended abruptly.

After the Hernandez decision, Garcia's life descended into chaos. His once-promising legal career had soured, leaving him destitute, and many of his friends were frustrated. In addition to his alcoholism, Garcia struggled with mental illness and spent most of the decade in and out of mental institutions, according to “A Class Apart.”

He died in 1964, 10 years after the Supreme Court ruling. He was just 48. Some reports suggest he died on a bus or park bench, and his body may have been undiscovered for several hours. Professor Garcia and others dispute that account. Garcia said he died in a friend’s office, but had fallen on hard times.

“He was legendary in the fact that he could win a case almost just on his articulation of that case,” Professor Garcia said. “He just went downhill drastically. Nobody wanted to work with him. He had to borrow money. It’s a tragic story of this incredible man.”

John J Herrera, who worked on the brief for the Hernandez case, wrote a letter to the Houston Post in 1972 in response to a feature story about Garcia.

“Perhaps what really killed, Gus Garcia, penniless and broken in health, was the thought that the so-called 'sleeping giant' for which he gave his last measure of devotion, would never awaken.”

Professor Garcia said Herrera tried to help his friend and colleague, but eventually became exhausted and gave up.

Garcia was born in Laredo, Texas. His family later moved to San Antonio. He graduated as the first valedictorian from Thomas Jefferson High in 1932 at 16. He was also named “Most Intellectual Student,” by his classmates. In college he was a champion debater and was on the team with John Connally — who went on to become as Texas governor and a U.S. senator.

At one point, they took on the Harvard team, which included John F. Kennedy, but lost.  Alvarado said that Garcia showed him a letter, by-then yellow with age, that Kennedy wrote telling Garcia he had actually won the debate, but “they were never going to give it to a Mexican-American.”

After graduating and passing the bar in 1938, he was an assistant county district attorney for San Antonio. In 1941, Garcia was drafted into the Army and served as an infantry officer and later as a judge advocate in Japan.

Garcia was a dashing figure, tall and lean with jet-black hair and green eyes.

“And his shoes were shined so much that the shine from those shoes could almost blind you,” Victor Rodriquez, a resident of Edna during the Hernandez trial recalled in “White But Not Equal. “I couldn’t help but be impressed with the poise that he exhibited when he walked slowly, but very precisely, with a great deal of confidence in his gate.”

His nephew Jacinto Juarez told Oxygen.com that he remembers his uncle coming to visit Laredo, Texas and lying on the sofa reminiscing about his storied legal career. He said Garcia would make collect calls to Robert F. Kennedy, and the politician accepted them.

“He was very eloquent, and he could have accomplished so much more if he could have controlled his alcohol use,” Juarez said.

Juarez said that Garcia believed he was a bullfighter in a previous life and love to go to Mexico and roam with the bulls “pretending to be a matador.”                                                                                         

Garcia once said of himself, “I rather soak in the applause than make a fat legal fee.”

He was never going to get rich on his civil rights cases and few of his clients could afford his fees, but Professor Garcia and others said he was dedicated to the cause and helping his people.

Efrain Gutierrez and Placido Salazar have created a 45-minute documentary about Garcia’s life, hoping to correct some of the misperceptions.

It has not been released yet, but they are having screenings to raise funds for a Gustavo Garcia memorial. They have also created a GoFundMe page.

“Everything you read about Gus says he died homeless and penniless,” Gutierrez told Oxygen.com. “We have done research, and we argue that’s not true. I mean, he was poor, but Gus was poor because he had too much pride. He had friends, lawyers. They would have done anything for him. But he never asked anybody for anything.”

He wants Garcia’s story taught in the Texas public school system.

“This is one of my greatest heroes, and I want people to know about him.”

Newspaper editor Millie Rose Diaz grew up in Edna where the murder and trial took place. She wrote a novel about Garcia and the Hernandez case, “Feet of Clay.” She spent three years writing it, even giving up her newspaper job. The book was published last year.

“I felt the need to write the story because I didn’t think anybody else would do it for my hometown,” she told Oxygen.com. “I kind of fell in love with, just the way he lived his life. He lived really hard, and it was short … He drank a lot, but he worked really hard. … He humanized himself in a way that I thought people could relate to because I know I certainly could.”

Actor and screenwriter Zeus Mendoza felt compelled to tell Garcia’s story after learning about him in the PBS documentary “A Class Apart.”  He and his producing partners are shopping a six-part mini-series about the civil rights attorney.

“It’s such a wonderful story. Just beautiful. It happens to be a Mexican American story, but it’s really an American story,” Mendoza told Oxygen.com.

Mendoza and others said that Garcia was a man ahead of his time.

“He is still ahead of his time is so many different ways. He was a Mexican American man, a very successful lawyer, brilliant, eloquent, with movie star good looks, just charming,” Mendoza said. “He pretty much had the world at his fingertips at a time when African Americans and Mexican Americans were considered third class citizens. He was able to rise above that and be the light for so many.”

He added: “I think he felt a little short-changed as well. Because he had the goods, but we live in a society that wasn’t going to let him reap the rewards or the benefits the way a white man would.”

Cadena said in the 1964 newspaper article: “Gus always thought that standard conventions didn’t apply to him. He took the attitude that if the Mexican people wanted his leadership, they would have to put up with what he called his idiosyncrasies. With all his faults and all of the things he did, or was accused of doing, Gus Garcia was a pretty good guy, and he did some pretty great things for the Mexican people.”