Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Fighting Discrimination: A Hispanic Former Agent’s Success Story

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15) the National Law Enforcement Museum would like to recognize the first Hispanic Special Agent in Charge (SAC) for the FBI, Bernardo ‘Mat’ Perez.

Perez served in the Bureau for 34 years. Starting in 1960 as a file clerk, he eventually obtained his degree from Georgetown University in 1963 and became an agent. In 1979, Perez was appointed SAC for the Puerto Rico Field Office. Perez successfully disregarded most discrimination, but when he was assigned to the Los Angeles Field Office in the 1980s the hostility was too overt to ignore. According to Perez, his SAC in L.A. once told him– “I’m going to overlook the fact that you’re a Mexican…that is your office and you stay over there and you don’t come out until I tell you.”
Book released in January about Bernardo ‘Mat’ Perez by author who joined in his lawsuit.
By 1987, Perez had decided he had had enough and filed a lawsuit for discrimination against the FBI. He was soon joined by 310 other Hispanic agents. In 1988, U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton, found that the FBI had discriminated against Hispanics, but stressed that there was no evidence of deliberate discrimination. Bunton found that Hispanics would be given unpleasant assignments rarely tasked to their white counterparts, commonly placed as translators, even if they wanted other types of investigative work where language skills were not a factor. In an article following the decision, Perez responded, “This case proves you can fight city hall and you can win.” Despite the 1988 case being decided in favor of the agents, they were granted no monetary compensation and lost thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Acknowledging the existence of discrimination was hard for Perez. According to an article in January 2014 he said, “I had investigated Klan cross-burnings in Florida, police brutality cases in Texas, and other civil rights violations…But I refused to accept and admit that discrimination existed at my beloved FBI.” Issues of racism and discrimination had never occurred to him growing up in the small but diverse town of Lone Pine, California. He said in his oral history, “I had never seen myself as a ‘Hispanic.’ Those things didn’t exist when I was a kid. We were all ‘Americans.’”

There is no doubt that this case and his sacrifice lead to the FBI making some major changes. It also opened the door for more lawsuits to be filed against federal agencies discriminating against minorities.

*Learn more about former Special Agent Bernardo “Mat” Perez by reading his entire oral history here:

* Read more oral histories from the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI here:

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