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Category: agents of change

Juan Mari Bras, Puerto Rican independence activist, dies at 82

Bras Juan Mari Bras, 82, an elder statesman of Puerto Rico's independence movement who gave up U.S. citizenship in an act that inspired hundreds of other activists, died Friday at his home in the San Juan suburb of Rio Piedras. He had lung cancer and had recently taken a fall, said Elaine Mulet Hocking, a spokeswoman for his Hostosiano independence movement.

A writer and law professor, Mari Bras was deeply involved in the independence cause from his days as a teenage student activist in the 1940s. He founded the Puerto Rican Socialist Party and was a co-founder of the small but influential Independence Party.

He dedicated his later years to seeking unity among the various pro-independence factions in Puerto Rico, a U.S. Caribbean territory whose 4 million residents are American citizens but cannot vote for president.

Gov. Luis Fortuno, who represents the opposite end of Puerto Rico's political spectrum as leader of the pro-statehood party, issued a statement praising Mari Bras as a legendary leader who fought for his ideals.

In an effort to establish Puerto Ricans' separate national identity, Mari Bras traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1994 and renounced his American citizenship while claiming the right to continue living in Puerto Rico. His actions inspired other "independentistas" to do the same.

The State Department initially approved Mari Bras' petition, but reversed its decision in 1998, the centennial year of the U.S. invasion that resulted in the seizure of Puerto Rico from Spain. U.S. officials told Mari Bras he was again a U.S. citizen because he hadn't registered as a resident alien.

As the result of legal challenges stemming from that case, the island government in 2007 issued its first certificate of Puerto Rican citizenship to Mari Bras. Some other islanders have also requested the document, which is valid as an ID on the island but not recognized as a travel document outside the island given that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Mari Bras also became the first Puerto Rican to lobby the United Nations for the island's independence in 1973, kicking off what has become a tradition at the U.N.’s special committee on decolonization.

The Independence Party typically receives less than 5% of the vote, with most islanders split between supporting statehood for Puerto Rico and the status quo as a U.S. commonwealth.

Mari Bras was born in the west-coast city of Mayaguez on Dec. 2, 1927, and graduated from American University Law School in Washington.

He is survived by his wife and five children. Another child, Santiago Mari Pesquera, was murdered in 1976 while Mari Bras was campaigning for governor on a Socialist Party ticket. The family has expressed suspicions that he was slain in reprisal for his father's political activism, but the case was never solved.

-- Associated Press

Photo: Jose Mari Bras in 2007. Credit: Thais Llorca / EPA

Lucius Walker, volunteer who brought aid to Cuba, dies at 80

Rev. Lucius Walker, who led an annual pilgrimage of U.S. aid volunteers to Cuba in defiance of Washington's near half-century-old trade embargo, died Tuesday of a heart attack in New York. He was 80.

Walker headed the nonprofit group Pastors for Peace, which since 1992 has brought tons of supplies donated in the U.S. to Cuba -- goods ranging from walkers and wheelchairs to computer monitors and clothing.

A statement on the New York City-based Pastors for Peace website expressed "immeasurable sadness" about "the passing of our beloved, heroic, prophetic leader Rev. Lucius Walker Jr."

-- Associated Press

Services set for Mario Obledo, former state secretary of health and welfare

Obledo A public memorial service will be held in Sacramento this week for Mario Obledo, former California secretary of health and welfare in Jerry Brown's administration, who died of a heart attack Wednesday at 78.

Sometimes called the “Godfather of the Latino Movement," Obledo served in the Brown cabinet from 1975 to 1982. He co-founded the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later directed the League of United Latin American Citizens as national president. In 1998 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.

A Mass will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday, followed by a rosary at 7 p.m. and a public viewing through midnight. A funeral mass will be held Friday at 9 a.m.

All services will be held at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, 1017 11th St., Sacramento.

--Elaine Woo

Caption: Mario Obledo in 1975. Credit: Associated Press


Mario Obledo, Latino activist and MALDEF co-founder, dies at 78

Mario Obledo, the president of the National Coalition of Hispanic Organizations and California's former secretary of health and welfare, has died. He was 78.

Obledo died Wednesday in Sacramento after having a heart attack, said his wife, Keda Alcala-Obledo.

During his career, Obledo was known for his efforts in supporting civil rights and humanitarian causes.

In 1998 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Clinton.

While serving as Gov. Jerry Brown's secretary of health and welfare from 1975 to 1982, he was credited with encouraging Latinos to enter state government.

Obledo also was co-founder of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, and the Hispanic National Bar Assn.

-- Associated Press

One year ago: Mary B. Henry

Mary-b-henry Mary B. Henry, a civil rights activist and Los Angeles icon who died one year ago, would likely have been beaming if she had lived to see the passing of the historic healthcare legislation last year.

Henry, who fostered the rise of Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center from the ashes of the 1965 Watts riots, was honored by presidents, governors and mayors for her lifelong work to provide quality education and social services to the poor.

Her work on President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty task force led to the Head Start program that brings nutrition and early childhood education to inner-city children.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas remembered her as a tireless advocate for quality healthcare. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) described Henry as "a huge positive presence in our community" and its "matriarch."

Henry was named the Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year in 1967, and in 2002, the Mary B. Henry Child Development Center was opened at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

For more on the woman who fought for the health of impoverished Angelenos, read Mary B. Henry's obituary by The Times.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Mary B. Henry. Credit: Los Angeles Times

One year ago: Eunice Kennedy Shriver


Despite the accomplishments of her brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, it has been said that Eunice Kennedy Shriver's campaign for the mentally disabled was the Kennedy family's most important contribution.

Shriver, who died one year ago, pushed mental retardation onto the national agenda in the 1960s, exposing an issue that was once hidden in shame. Her most recognized accomplishment was founding the Special Olympics, which today involves 2.5 million people from more than 150 countries taking part in hundreds of its programs.

President Obama called Shriver "a champion for people with intellectual disabilities" and "an extraordinary woman who, as much as anyone, taught our nation -- and our world -- that no physical or mental barrier can restrain the power of the human spirit."

Shriver was partly motivated by the plight of her sister Rosemary, whose mental handicap had been a family secret. In 1962, Shriver told the world about Rosemary's condition in a Saturday Evening Post article, which advocates for the mentally disabled said helped move mental disabilities from behind a curtain of ignorance.

Although Shriver was plagued with health issues throughout her life, her family said her fervent drive easily exhausted aides half her age.

Read Eunice Kennedy Shriver's obituary by The Times. Also, see a photo gallery on her life.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Eunice Shriver hangs a gold medal on a winner of the mile run on Aug. 17, 1972, at the International Special Olympics. Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Budd Schulberg

Schulberg Budd Schulberg, who died one year ago, was Hollywood's favorite writer to hate in the mid-20th century. His famed novel, "What Makes Sammy Run?", exposed the dark side of Hollywood and American ambition, earning him the public disdain of many in the industry.

If his scathing novels weren't enough, he also was infamous for appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 to name 17 people he said he had known in the Communist Party.

Although the writer had been a member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1939, he later became disillusioned with the party after party members in Hollywood tried to dictate how he should write "What Makes Sammy Run?"

Schulberg had many famed encounters in his life, including once getting into a fight with John Wayne, who despised Schulberg's negative depiction of the film industry in the book. He also nearly came to blows with Ernest Hemingway when Hemingway challenged Schulberg's knowledge of boxing.

"What Makes Sammy Run?" made Schulberg famous, but his greatest success came with "On the Waterfront." His screenwriting Oscar was one of eight Academy Awards the 1954 film received.

Schulberg once said, however, that his proudest achievement was as founder and director of the Watts Writers Workshop. Launched in 1965 after the Los Angeles riots of that year, the workshop lasted until 1971 and spawned workshops in other cities.

For more about the writer who exposed Hollywood's dark secrets, read Budd Schulberg's obituary by The Times.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Budd Schulberg. Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Corazon Aquino

Aquino Corazon Aquino was the charismatic president of the Philippines who drove dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos from power in 1986, leading to the restoration of democracy in the country.

In what she called her greatest achievement, Aquino presided over free elections, appointed an independent judiciary, encouraged a free press and restored other democratic institutions gutted by Marcos during his 20-year authoritarian rule.

Aquino, who served as president for six years, died a year ago at age 76. She left a mixed legacy despite her high profile and popularity when she took power. Her government was beset by seven bloody coup attempts, threatened by Muslim secessionists and debilitated by a series of government scandals.

She also appeared jinxed by a series of natural disasters that included a deadly earthquake, one of the century's worst volcanic eruptions at Mt. Pinatubo, floods, typhoons and a drought.

In her final State of the Nation address in July 1991, Aquino seemed to speak more to her failures than to her successes.

"God knows, we have made mistakes," she said. "I hope that history will judge me ... favorably ... because, as God is my witness, I honestly did the best I could."

For more on the woman who restored democracy to the Philippines, read Corazon Aquino's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Corazon Aquino in her signature yellow.

Credit: Associated Press

One year ago: Florence Foster

Florence Florence Foster was an electronics technician who blew the whistle on a tiny Los Angeles-area outpost of Northrop Corp., which led to a massive criminal case involving the falsification of tests on cruise missiles. She died one year ago.

To Foster, who worked for Northrop, much about the corporation's operation seemed sloppy and out-of-kilter with mainstream aerospace industry practices

Northrop produced weapon systems for the military, and Foster worried that nuclear weapons with faulty guidance systems destined for the Air Force "could be the start of World War III."

Despite being brushed off by both her supervisor and the FBI, she was eventually able to arrange a meeting with agents from the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations. This and subsequent meetings eventually led the Department of Justice to file criminal charges against Northrop and three of its officials.

Northrop shut down its El Monte facility in 1987 and acknowledged that the operation was not following company procedures. In 1990, Northrop pleaded guilty to 34 felony counts of fraud in the case and paid fines of $17 million.

An interesting tidbit: Foster was a direct descendant of Abram B. Burnett, a 19th century chief of the Potawatomi tribe known for his mediation skills. In 2001, Foster -- in full Native American attire -- waved to Rose Parade crowds from a float honoring "The First Americans."

For more, read Florence Foster's obituary by The Times.

--Michael Farr

Photo: Florence Foster rides Countrywide's "First Americans" float in the 2001 Rose Parade. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

One year ago: Kenneth M. Stampp

Kenneth-stampp In the 1950s, the standard college text on slavery in the United States portrayed slave owners in a largely favorable light as a civilizing influence on their African slaves. But then came Kenneth M. Stampp, who wrote "The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South," a 1956 book that marked a turning point in historians' treatment of slavery. Stampp died one year ago.

Stampp was a UC Berkeley historian when he wrote the book, which rejected the moonlight-and-magnolias mythology that inspired such stereotypes as the benevolent plantation owner and the smiling black mammy. He also showed how slaves resisted their bondage, not only through rebellion and escape but also through more passive methods, such as work slowdowns and breaking tools.

The power of Stampp's book stemmed from its rich documentation -- which included narratives by fugitive slaves, antebellum newspapers, court records and slave owners' correspondence -- and its literary style.

Although Stampp's book came out during the eve of the Civil Rights movement, it was a product of thoughts and research he had been developing for at least a decade. Still, the book's theme meshed well with the temper of the times and within a few years became the generally accepted account of slavery.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who studied under Stampp in the early 1950s, said this about the book:

"What his book asked us to do was view slavery through the eyes of the slave as well as through the eyes of the slaveholders. ... The voice of slaves could no longer be denied."

For more, read Kenneth M. Stampp's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Kenneth M. Stampp. Credit: UC Berkeley

Algirdas Brazauskas, former president of Lithuania, dies at 77

Algirdas Brazauskas, Lithuania's first post-independence president, died at his home Saturday, his wife said. He was 77 and had been receiving treatment for cancer.

He became Lithuania's first freely elected president in 1993, two years after the Baltic state regained independence from Moscow after five decades of Soviet occupation.

A former chairman of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Brazauskas gained popularity in the late 1980s by challenging the Kremlin with demands for more political and economic freedom.

More later at

--Associated Press

One year ago: Samuel M. Genensky

Genensky Throughout his life, mathematician Samuel M. Genensky insisted that he wasn't blind. Yes, he had to hold a book up to his nose to read. Yes, he sometimes mistook the women's restroom for the men's room. But he wasn't blind -- only partially.

Genensky, whose eyes were burned shortly after birth when a delivery-room nurse accidentally administered the wrong eyedrops to guard against infection, felt that though the world tried to accommodate the blind, nothing was being done for people like him. He set out to change that and developed a kind of closed-circuit television that became the prototype for the video magnifiers sold around the world today for the severely visually impaired. One year ago today, he died of heart disease.

Genensky's great invention was born early in life when, to keep up with his normal-sighted peers, he took his father's World War I-era binoculars to geometry class and was delighted to discover that he could see what the teacher was drawing on the board.

He continually improved on this binocular system throughout his schooling, taking it with him all the way through Brown and Harvard universities. After college, he joined Rand Corp., where his colleagues helped him develop his device into something that eventually became publicized by Reader's Digest as "Sam Genensky's Marvelous Seeing Machine."

"Sam is universally known as a pioneer of assisted technology for people with partial vision," said Tony R. Candela, a deputy director in the California Department of Rehabilitation who oversees services for the blind and deaf. Genensky's magnification machine "ended up revolutionizing the ability of people with partial vision to read printed material," Candela said.

For more on the man who made life easier for the visually impaired, read Samuel Genensky's obituary by The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: Samuel Genensky wearing a bioptic telescope. Credit: The Center for the Partially Sighted


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