Henry Casso’s compassion for the poor, forged by his upbringing in a Texas orphanage, led him to become a champion for Mexican-Americans and civil rights, first as a priest and later as an education professor, his daughter said Thursday.
Casso, 82, died Tuesday in an Albuquerque hospital where he was being treated for several illnesses.
As a Roman Catholic priest pastoring to Mexican-Americans in San Antonio, Texas, Casso co-founded the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in 1968 to help improve Latino representation in the legal system.
“His compassion for the underdog always motivated him to take on big challenges,” Luisa Casso said Thursday. “He had a very strong compassion for the poor.”
The initial aim of MALDEF was to give Mexican-Americans greater access to education and, in particular, to law schools, and to increase Latino representation in the legal profession, Luisa Casso said.
Now a Los Angeles-based organization, MALDEF describes itself today as the “law firm of the Latino community,” advocating Latino rights in education, employment, immigration and political access.
Also in the 1960s, Casso and other priests founded an organization called PADRES, or Priests Associated for Religious, Education and Social Rights, to increase the representation of Mexican-Americans as priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church.
The two organizations were intended to provide Mexican-Americans with better career opportunities in the legal profession and the Roman Catholic Church, Luisa Casso said.
“He really broke through a lot of barriers to make those institutions available to Mexican-Americans,” she said.
“Dr. Casso was a pioneer in the area of civil rights and education for Latinos,” said Ralph Arellanes, the New Mexico state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “He opened a lot of doors for many and did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.”
Casso and his five brothers and sisters grew up at St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s Home in San Antonio after Depression-era hardships forced his father to take a job with a railroad, his daughter said.
Casso was ordained a priest in 1957. He resigned the priesthood in 1970 to marry and raise a family, she said.
Casso earned a doctorate in education at the University of Massachusetts, where he began a teacher training program in bilingual education.
In 1973, he moved with his family to Albuquerque to serve as an education professor at University of New Mexico.
In New Mexico, he continued to press for bilingual education in public schools and served as a member of Gov. Bruce King’s state-wide Education Task Force.
Casso is survived by his sister, Sister Carmelta Casso, his daughter Luisa Casso, and his daughter Carin Reinhardt and son-in-law Jon Reinhardt.
A memorial service and rosary is scheduled for 7 p.m. today at Salazar Mortuary, 400 Third SW.
A funeral Mass is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Aquinas Newman Center, 1815 Las Lomas NE, on the UNM main campus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.