‘Never forget where you came from’
His mother’s words inspire Frank Herrera Jr. to help empower the Latino community
Published in 2016 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 6, 2016
Updated on September 16, 2016
When Frank Herrera Jr. was a boy, his dad took him to see the opening chapter of a trial that would make history and change the lives of Hispanics across the country.
In a courtroom in Edna, legendary San Antonio attorney Gus Garcia was defending a local Mexican-American man accused of murder, in front of an all-white jury. As Garcia anticipated, in 1954 the case would go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—the first Mexican-American civil rights case to do so, with the first Latino lawyer to argue before the high court. The systemic exclusion of Hispanics from juries by 70 Texas counties was overturned. It was a major step, opening the way to equal protection from discrimination, and against segregation.
Herrera came home determined to become a lawyer. He would wind up dedicating much of his life to similar causes, working to open doors and provide opportunities for Latinos.
“That was the spark,” Herrera says.
Herrera knew discrimination and segregation first hand. The only restaurant in Edna had a sign on the door that read: “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.” He went to a segregated elementary school. His dad, a mechanic, and his mom, a migrant worker, told him that he could make a difference as a lawyer.
A priest he knew in high school said, “Become a lawyer. … You have the gift of gab.”
“I’m a natural ham,” Herrera admits.
He also had smarts. He earned a scholarship to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio for undergraduate and law school.
“When I got accepted at St. Mary’s, I went to the high school to get my transcript,” Herrera recalls. When he told the principal where he was going, “He said, ‘You must have an oil well in your backyard.’
“My mother turned to him and, in her broken English, said, ‘No oil well. Just brains!’”
She also gave her son words to live by, which he keeps on display in his firm’s reception area, and as the title of the painting of his parents hanging on his office wall: Nunca te olvides de donde veniste.
“Never forget where you came from.”
His parents refinanced their home to help him open his practice. Now, nearly five decades later, his personal injury practice is known as The Herrera Law Firm and includes his two sons among its attorneys. It’s a San Antonio icon, known for its slogan: “Winning isn’t luck. It’s knowing how to fight.”
Herrera is also known for his charitable work. He has been on the board of directors of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) since 1986, and served as chairman of the board of the New America Alliance (NAA) from 2013 to 2015. He’s also active as a fundraiser and supporter of his alma mater through the St. Mary’s University Alumni Association, and he’s “kind of adopted” Central Catholic High School.
He targets “organizations that focus on the empowerment of the Latino groups, especially the Mexicanos.” The Mexican government recognized his efforts with its prestigious Ohtli Award, honoring those who make significant contributions to the well-being, prosperity and empowerment of people of Mexican descent living abroad.
He also earned MALDEF’s highest honor, the Valerie Kantor Award for Extraordinary Achievement, in 1992. MALDEF’s president and general counsel, Thomas Saenz, says the length of Herrera’s service speaks to his dedication.
“His long-term commitment,” Saenz says, “is ample demonstration of his belief that the law has to be applied equally, has to afford the exact same protections to every person, and of his deep belief that the law can be, and has been, an important tool to secure greater equity for the Latino community and other minority communities.”
Herrera calls it the David and Goliath philosophy: “helping those who are not empowered, and empowering them.”