Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995
Eligio de la Garza has had a long and illustrious career in public service. Known fondly in his Rio Grande Valley congressional district simply as "Kika," de la Garza's family can trace its roots in the area to the early 1700's.
Born in Mercedes, Hidalgo County, Texas on September 22, 1927, de la Garza grew up in Mission where he attended Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic School and Mission High School. At age 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served until 1946. He continued his education at Edinburg Junior College and the U.S. Army Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. De la Garza served in the Korean conflict as a second lieutenant with the Army's Thirty-seventh Division Artillery. In 1952, he earned a law degree from St. Mary's University in San Antonio (where he was later awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree). That same year he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.
De la Garza launched his career in public service with numerous legislative accomplishments, including the absorption of Pan American University into the University of Texas system, and the creation of the Texas Water Commission and the Reagan/de la Garza coastal wetlands. He was the driving force behind legislation creating the nation's first state-run system of English language instruction for pre-school age children. He also sponsored a bill allowing Texas' border cities and counties to build their own international bridges.
After six consecutive terms in Austin, Representative de la Garza was elected in 1964 to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Texas' 15th District, and has been either unopposed or reelected by wide margins ever since.
Because he hails from a district with a large agricultural base, de la Garza became a member of the Committee on Agriculture. In 1967 he served as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Department Operations and Foreign Agriculture. From 1981 to 1994 de la Garza was the Chairman of the Committee on Agriculture, becoming the first Hispanic since 1917 (when Ladislas Lazaro chaired the Enrolled Bills Committee) to chair a standing committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
During his tenure as Chairman, Representative de la Garza successfully led the way for the House to pass three omnibus farm bills (1981, 1985, and 1990), a major overhaul of the agricultural lending system, Federal crop insurance reform, a major reorganization of the USDA, reforms in Federal pesticide laws, and numerous other measures to assist U.S. agriculture, encourage rural economic development, and improve human nutrition.
During de la Garza's thirteen years of leadership as Chairman of the Agriculture Committee, major agricultural legislation was enacted. Through his efforts with the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981, farm legislation included provisions to set specific target prices for four years and require certain cost-cutting measures. In 1983 the Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Act authorized distribution of government-owned surplus commodities to indigent persons. Two years later, the Food Security Act included provisions to shift the direction of farm programs to more market-oriented levels, strengthen export programs, and create a conservation reserve targeted at highly erodible croplands. The Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 revised credit assistance programs, restructured the Farm Credit System, and facilitated creation of a secondary market for agricultural loans. In 1988 and 1989 the Disaster Assistance Acts provided assistance to farmers and ranchers who lost crop production due to drought and other natural disasters that occurred during this period.
In 1990 the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act re-authorized commodity and nutrition programs, reformed export assistance programs, and established new initiatives to strengthen environmental protection for agricultural lands. The Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994 established a federally-funded catastrophic risk coverage policy for crop losses or prevented planting and authorized a major reorganization and streamlining of U.S. Department of Agriculture operations.
In 1976 de la Garza became one of the founding members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which he chaired from 1989 to 1991.
A strong supporter of civil rights safeguard for minorities, de la Garza has successfully fought for improved access to health care for the elderly and veterans, better living conditions for low-income individuals and the impoverished, and access to educational opportunities for all Americans. Also an influential proponent of free trade, de la Garza was instrumental in the passage of both the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the expansion of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
De la Garza speaks several languages, and greets foreign dignitaries who visit his office in their own tongue. He maintains close relationships with many world leaders and agricultural ministers.
One of Congress' leading experts on U.S.-Mexican relations, de la Garza has worked to improve relations and trade between the two countries throughout his congressional career. In 1966, he became the first congressman from the Texas-Mexico border area to serve on the Mexico-United States Interparliamentary Group, which promotes dialogue between legislators from the two countries. He has served as chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' delegation to that group since 1978. That same year, in recognition of his outstanding work, Mexico's President José López Portillo awarded him the Order of the Aztec Eagle -- the highest honor Mexico can bestow on a foreigner.
Publications by E. "Kika" de la Garza:
"Linking Trade Growth and the Environment: One Lawmaker's View." Environmental Law 23 (1993): pp 701-702.
For further reading:
Meier, Matt S. Mexican American Biographies. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Ralph Nader Congress Project. Eligio de la Garza, Democratic Representative from Texas. Washington D.C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.
"Profile of a Public Man." Nuestro 2:13 (March 1983).