The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California Monday named Hector Villagra as its new director. He'll replace longtime executive director Ramona Ripston in February.
Hector Villagra serves as legal director for the ACLU now. Previously, he headed its Orange County office and spent time as a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Project.
Villagra, 42, credits his immigrant parents with instilling in him a commitment to civil rights work. His mother came from Cuba as a teenager. His father was born and raised in Argentina.
"They believed very fervently in the promise of freedom and opportunity in this country," Villagra said.
But Villagra also cited a source of motivation some might consider unusual for someone who will soon lead the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California: his religious schooling.
“I went to Loyola High School and was taught at a very early age to try to live up to the ideal of serving other people," he said. "And I couldn’t think of a better way of serving others than to defend the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
Villagra said its wrong to think the ACLU harbors an anti-religion bias. He notes the organization is interested in eliminating government sponsorship of religion, as well as stopping government from targeting people for their religious practices.
The Columbia Law School graduate has worked on a wide range of cases involving educational equity, employment discrimination and immigrant rights.
He said he’d make education, immigration and jail litigation top priorities as director of the Southern California ACLU.
On education, Villagra said public schools are deteriorating in some neighborhoods, raising the same concerns that led the ACLU to spearhead a major lawsuit that led to a more equitable distribution of resources a decade ago.
"A lot of the conditions that were in play 10 years ago are being re-created today because of budget cuts."
Villagra, who takes over February 15, becomes the first Latino director of the ACLU's Southland chapter.
Audio: An interview with Hector Villagra by KPCC's Frank Stoltze.