Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995
Jaime Benítez, author, academic, politician, was born on October 29, 1908 in Vieques, a small island about twenty miles from the shores of Puerto Rico. His mother died when he was six years old, and his father died a year later. It fell to his older sister, who lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to raise him. Benítez attended local public schools, but in 1926 he left the Island to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he received an LL.B. degree in 1930 and an LL.M. in 1931. That same year he passed the District of Columbia bar examination and returned to Puerto Rico. He earned an M.A. at the University of Chicago in 1938.
In 1931 Benítez began a career in education at the University of Puerto Rico that spanned four decades: he was associate professor of social and political sciences (1931-1942), chancellor (1942-1966), and president of the University System of Puerto Rico (1966-1971). When Benítez began teaching, the university had three thousand students; by the time he left, the university had grown to forty-five thousand students under his leadership.
Benítez has published numerous articles, essays, and books. An important contributor to the development of higher education in Puerto Rico, Benítez is the author of a number of books that concern the university system, including Junto a la Torre -- Jornadas de un programa universitario (1963); Etica y estilo de la universidad (1964); La universidad del futuro (1964); and Sobre el futuro cultural y político de Puerto Rico (1965). From 1956 to 1971 he was the director and a contributor to La Torre, the University of Puerto Rico literary review. In addition to his academic career, Benítez also maintained an active role in numerous national and international organizations: he was a member of the United States National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 1948 to 1954, and attended the UNESCO conventions in Paris, France (1950) and Havana, Cuba (1952); he was a member of the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico, and the chairman of the Committee on the Bill of Rights from 1951 to 1952. He served as president of the National Association of State Universities from 1957 to 1958.
In 1972 Benítez was elected Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico for a four-year term. In the U.S. House of Representatives he was assigned to the Committee on Education and Labor, an important committee assignment for a man who cared deeply about education and who had an interest in social and labor conditions in Puerto Rico. In the 94th Congress, Benítez introduced legislation to extend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to Puerto Rico. He also showed interest in the affairs of U.S. territories, sponsoring legislation to allow American Samoa to elect a governor and lieutenant governor, and supporting the authorization of a loan to the Virgin Islands Government. While in Congress he was a strong advocate of the commonwealth status of Puerto Rico, which he felt was preferable to statehood or independence.
After an unsuccessful reelection bid, Benítez returned to Puerto Rico. He taught at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico from 1980 to 1986. Since then he has been a professor of government at the American College in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.
For further reading:
Figueroa, Javier. Diccionario histórico biográfico. Madrid: Ediciones R Madrid, 1976.
Newlon, Clarke. Famous Puerto Ricans. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1985.
Rosa-Nieves, Cesáreo and Esther M. Melón. Biografías puertorriqueñas: Perfil histórico de un pueblo. Sharon, Connecticut: Troutman Press, 1970.