A Fierce Fighter For Civil Rights and American Justice
The Sunday, November 20, 2021 death of Luis Roberto Vera, Jr., 65, a prominent civil rights leader and Texas attorney, appropriately made national news this week.
I spent a few years interviewing over 200 people and researching (spending many hours side-by-side studying Luis) for a book, “Miracles of Justice.”
The common denominator in how most people described Luis, is the word “fighter.” That he fiercely was…especially in the case of Dominique Ramirez, who at 16, became the youngest Miss San Antonio in history.
During her tenure, Dominique was abruptly decrowned of her title by replaced leadership on the pageant board. Long story short, the beautiful Dominique’s plight made international news as she was unfairly kicked out by the board. After unsuccessful attempts to find an attorney, Dominique experienced her first miracle: enter Luis Vera, Jr.
This week, Vera was acknowledged by The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC, the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights organization, founded in 1929) as their national general counsel and worked with them for three decades.
LULAC’s National President Domingo Garcia issued a statement on the passing of Vera.
We have lost a friend, and our Nation’s Latino community has lost one of its greatest defenders. Luis was a man whose fight for justice often took him from the streets of our poorest barrios in San Antonio to the marbled hallways of our federal courts. Judges knew when Luis Vera walked into their courtroom…He was widely respected, even by those who presented opposing legal arguments in landmark cases…Luis followed in the footsteps of those before him who have helped build LULAC into one of America’s most respected civil rights organizations. Vaya con Dios Luis Vera.
“Ironically, Luis lives on through the recent lawsuits he helped file in federal court that will forever carry the imprint of his love for justice and the voice that shall never be silenced,” LULAC National CEO Sindy Benavides said in a statement.
My wife, Loralyn, and her southside San Antonio Kingsborough Elementary and Middle School classmates, meet for lunch at least once a year at Don Pedro’s Mexican Restaurant for a mini-reunion–all paid for and hosted by Luis. He cherished his lifelong friends. The biggest smiles I’ve ever seen beam off of Luis’ face were with his classmates.
In loving memory of Luis, here is Chapter 4 of “Miracles of Justice,” his introduction in the book.
(Note: Luis didn’t want to have the book published yet, because he indicated to Dominique and me that he was working on a potential movie deal–slowed by the pandemic–and didn’t want to intrude on that possibility.)
Miracles of Justice
Written by Jack Dennis, with collaboration from Dominique Ramirez-Wilson. Copyrighted by Jack Dennis
Chapter 4 Against the Odds
He’d been playing against the odds of death far too long. Politicians, CEOs, foreign and domestic governments, school district officials, and other organizational threats of courtroom confrontations didn’t faze him. Luis Vera emerged fiercer. If they spread lies to the media, it only strengthened his persistence. He didn’t flinch. When they decided to enter a game of chicken, they would play against a relentless, and very much alive, warrior beast!
Vera grew up having high expectations for himself. He attended San Antonio College, St. Mary’s University and the University of Texas at San Antonio simultaneously to finish his last two years of college in one year. He met his wife Rosie in 1988 when she worked as a file clerk at the State School on South Presa and S.W. Military Drive. Vera was a new unit manager supervisor. It was a “place to park while I waited for law school to begin,” he said.
“What I first remember about Luis is that he was undergoing training and he was already wanting to change everything,” Rosie laughs. “He was a bit crude. He would ask me out to lunch, but I said ‘I just don’t think so, or that I don’t want to go out. It’s not going to work.”
Persistently, Vera continued to ask.
“There’s something wrong with this guy,” Rosie deduced. “I thought he was too blunt and crude. He proceeded to try to talk to me. He asked me one day what was wrong with me so I told him ‘not everybody needs to stand up in the room when you enter.’ It was awkward, but he kept trying. So the first time we went to lunch we took another co-worker so there would be three of us there. I think it was uncomfortable for him.”
Rosie relented. Soon they had lunch together alone. Within a few months she became executive secretary for the Human Resources Director, while her new “boyfriend” continued to be the king of his domain on his unit. One of his personnel techs was a young man named Robert Cuellar, who would one day become president of the annual Fiesta Flambeau Night Parade in San Antonio.
“Church has always been very important to me,” explained Rosie. “Meeting Luis was a ‘God thing.’ I would ask people to go to church and they wouldn’t. He did. When I asked him about it, there was no hesitation. I found that his faith is very strong, but like everything, it’s in his own way. He started going with me every Saturday and Sunday to Living Way Christian Church in northeast San Antonio.”
Luis and Rosie became Mr. and Mrs. Vera within 11 months. Two weeks after their wedding, they moved to Massachusetts where he began law school.
“I enjoyed Massachusetts very much,” she remembered. “It was my first time out of Texas. It was a different life.”
Vera began working for prominent San Antonio attorney Oliver Heard after receiving his license to practice. One of his first cases was a lawsuit against the National Guard. Mexican-Americans were not being promoted even though some of them were career guardsmen.
“It was hard for some of the older ones to compete with rookie guardsmen, especially on the physical training exercises,” Vera recalled. “I went to Austin to meet with a large panel of National Guard leaders. There I was alone, just facing a group of distinguished men, or at least they thought they were distinguished wearing their ribbons and badges. I just thought to myself, ‘you guys don’t intimidate me. To me you are just cub scouts dressing up. Let’s get to the meat of the matter. Let’s talk about real justice.’”
The Vera’s had four children: Jerry, Michael, Anthony and Melanie. By 2017, with Rosie as a 6th grade teacher at Leal Middle School in south San Antonio, Luis continued to practice law. Their grandchildren included Girbrian, Olive, Vita, Maseo, and Anthony. Yaza, their first great-grandchild, was born in 2016.
“God uses Luis to help people out,” Rosie said. “People just see him at the trial, but his faith is what they don’t see. It is so strong. I’ve seen people come to him with nothing and no hope. One man, an African-American, had his children taken away from him illegally by their mother. He was from another state but knew they were in Texas. He kept coming back to San Antonio but there was no trace of them here.”
“His father, a minister, told his son that he had been praying for him and that he should return because he thinks he will find his children. When the father went before the judge in San Antonio, he told him he understood what he was saying, ‘But you need a lawyer to represent you in something this complex. There is one right there. You can use him.’”
“The judge pointed at Luis as he walked into his courtroom for other business. Luis listened to him and said ‘yeah, I’ll help you, but let me take care of this first.’ Luis was able to find the woman and secured the children to return legally back to their loving father. How did that happen? –that Luis happened to be coming through those doors at exactly the right moment to help this family?”
“Over the years, and during the big fights in court and with my health, I would be so exhausted, be sick with headaches,” Vera said. “People would see or hear about me and they’d say ‘he is not going to last or he won’t make it.’ I would force myself. Being sick made me better as a lawyer. I became more disciplined because now I was limited to so many hours in the day because of operations, doctor appointments, and all. Six to seven days a week, even if I traveled to San Diego, Tampa, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Tulsa, Miami, New York or Washington D.C., I would receive treatment.”
As his body aged toward 55, Vera became less afraid of exceeding his own expectations. He realized that the question of making meaning or purpose to our lives is constantly before all of us in a variety of ways. In the life of an attorney, stress, fear and loss is never very far. On any given day, Vera spoke with people whose lives were reshaped in an instant. In the morning he would speak to a man whose wife had left him after 22 years of marriage. Later, the parents of an ailing child came in to talk about medical malpractice because their daughter would never hear again. Towards the end of the work day, a man strolled in with a wheelchair, broken arm, and in a neck brace. While injured in a work-related accident, he wasn’t ‘officially’ an employee of the business.
What all these individuals had in common was the staggering presence of loss in their lives. But, with Vera, each one had a choice. The loss could be seen as a sign of meaninglessness, or an opportunity to create meaning. Not only was it his job as an attorney to help them through legal remedy, he was their protector. He perceived himself shield-like by offering choices that provided quality, dignity, and to some extent, a bit of joy.
The deepest losses of life may not be curable. However, the greater the loss the greater the need for calmness of soul. Sometimes the calmness comes from the realization that distress has to be allowed so we can learn to bear it. We may share in others’ sadness, but we cannot repair the pain. In the book of Job, his friend’s response to his series of tragedies was to sit with him and weep. Although commendable, later they were condemned when they attempted to explain to him why he experienced the sequences of tragedies. What loss cries for is not to be explained or repaired, but to be shared and hopefully, to find some meaning.
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Author Cindy Leal Massey was a McCollum High School classmate with Luis Vera, Jr.