Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995


Hispanics and Hispanic Americans have played a fundamental role in the history of the United States. The first European expedition in recorded history to land in what is today the continental United States was led by the former Spanish Governor of the Island of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León. Indeed, he named the peninsula "Florida" because his sailors disembarked on Easter Sunday (Pascua Florida), 1513. In 1565, the Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the oldest European city still flourishing in the United States, Saint Augustine, Florida. In 1610, the Spanish Governor of New Mexico, Pedro de Peralta, established the city of Santa Fe, just three years after Jamestown. In September 1776, two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza founded a city on the bay, San Francisco, California.

Those three states -- Florida, New Mexico, and California -- would be the first to send Hispanic representatives to the U.S. Congress. In 1822-1823, Joseph Marion Hernández of Florida became the first Hispanic to serve in Congress. Another event that would deeply affect the history of the United States and its Hispanic population was the Mexican-American War. From 1846 to 1848, the United States fought a war with Mexico in part because of the American annexation of the Republic of Texas, which itself had fought to establish its independence from Mexico a decade earlier, but which Mexicans still considered part of their territory. As a result of the American victory in the war and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States acquired over half of Mexico's territory, the present-day states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. In 1853 the New Mexico territory elected Democrat José Manuel Gallegos as its Delegate to Congress, following the pattern established in the late eighteenth century for territories that would eventually become states. The following year Congress approved the Gadsden Purchase which added 29 million new acres to southern Arizona and New Mexico. The New Mexico territory continued to send both Democratic and Republican Hispanic Delegates to Congress throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, all fighting to achieve statehood for their territory. California, which had become a state in 1850, sent its first Hispanic representative to Congress with the election of Republican Romualdo Pacheco, who served from 1877 to 1883. Appointed Chairman of the Private Land Claims Committee, Pacheco was the first Hispanic to chair a committee.

The history of Hispanic Americans in Congress changed once again after the Spanish-American War (1895-1898). Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, the U.S. annexed the island of Puerto Rico. [1] An office in Congress was established in 1900 for a single delegate from Puerto Rico, known as a Resident Commissioner, who was elected to Congress for two-year terms that were expanded to four-year terms in 1920, although Commissioners did not possess voting privileges at that time. Of the 17 Hispanic American Members of Congress elected between 1900-1960, nine represented Puerto Rico as Resident Commissioners. These Resident Commissioners worked to give the Island greater self-government, establish a constitution, and provide for the election of the governor of Puerto Rico. During that period, the state of Louisiana sent its first Hispanic to the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrat Ladislas Lazaro, who served from 1913 to 1927. The other six Members all hailed from New Mexico, which became a state in 1912. In 1928, one of that group, Republican Octaviano Larrazolo, became the first Hispanic Senator. He was elected to fill an unexpired term. In 1936, Democrat Dennis Chávez became the first Hispanic to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate, following two terms as a Representative. He served continuously until his death in 1962. Throughout his career, Chávez was often ahead of his time. For example, he fought discrimination against Hispanics, and in 1944 campaigned for the establishment of a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to prohibit all racial or ethnic bias in the workplace. In 1964 New Mexico elected another Hispanic Senator, Democrat Joseph Manuel Montoya, who served until 1977.

Since 1960 more Hispanics have been elected to Congress than in the previous 140 years. This change reflects the increase in the Hispanic population, the strength of Hispanic groups and grass-roots organizations, and the wider participation of voters following the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1961 Texas elected its first Hispanic Representative, Democrat Henry B. González. In 1963 California again sent a Hispanic Representative to Congress with the election of Democrat Edward R. Roybal. In 1969 New Mexico sent Republican Manuel Luján, Jr. to the U.S. House of Representatives. Representative Luján did not seek reelection in 1988; he was named Secretary of the Interior in January 1989. In 1971 New York elected Democrat and Puerto Rican-born Herman Badillo as its first Hispanic Congressman. In 1976, five Hispanic members of Congress -- Roybal (D-CA), González (D-TX), Badillo (D-NY), Eligio "Kika" de la Garza (D-TX), and Baltasar Corrada del Río (NP-PR) -- formed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to address the needs of Hispanics. They gave their time and financial support to the effort of establishing a center for research and education by and for Hispanic Americans. The Hispanic Caucus worked for greater attention to urban housing and education stressing the need for bilingual programs.

The 1980's saw the expansion of Hispanic participation in state delegations. Their numbers doubled from two to four in Texas, and the California delegation gained three new Members. In 1989, Florida elected to Congress its first Hispanic Representative in 166 years, Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She is the first Cuban-American and the first Hispanic woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

In 1970 Congress enacted the Legislative Reorganization Act amending Rule XII of the U.S. House of Representatives ("Resident Commissioner and Delegates") allowing the Resident Commissioner to serve and vote on standing committees. In 1973 this law was extended to the Delegates from Guam and the Virgin Islands. This same year the Virgin Islands elected its first Hispanic Delegate, Democrat Ron de Lugo. In 1985, Guam elected Republican Ben Blaz Garrido as its Delegate.

The 103rd Congress amended Rule XII of the House of Representatives ("Resident Commissioner and Delegates") in H. Res. 5 on January 5, 1993, to permit the Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico, and the Delegates from the District of Columbia and the Territories of American Samoa, Guam, and the Virgin Islands to vote in the Committee of the Whole. In the 104th Congress, the House reamended that rule and stripped the Resident Commissioner and the Delegates of the right to vote in the Committee of the Whole.

During the first half of the 1990's, the number of Hispanic Members increased due in part to substantial growth in the Hispanic population of many states throughout the nation. In 1990 Arizona sent Democrat Ed Pastor to the U.S. House of Representatives as its first Hispanic Congressman. In 1992 New Jersey and Illinois elected their first Hispanic Representatives, Democrats Robert Menéndez and Luis Gutiérrez respectively. In that year, the membership of the Hispanic Caucus increased to 20, the largest and most diverse group in its history, representing eight states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Guam.

I had the privilege to serve as Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for a two-year term in the 103rd Congress. During that time the Caucus scored major achievements working for the Voting Rights Language Assistance Amendments and in maintaining rights and freedoms previously guaranteed.

The Hispanic membership in Congress promises to grow even more rapidly as the United States enters the 21st century. Since the election of Joseph Marion Hernández in 1822, Hispanic representation in Congress has always reflected our diverse constituency. The U.S. Census Bureau projects Hispanics will become the largest minority group in the United States by 2010, and their numbers and the variety of views represented in their Congressional delegations are likely to increase.

We have reason to be proud of the contributions Hispanic Americans have made to our country. The future for Hispanic Americans grows brighter each year as we increase our numbers and influence in government and the private sector, in commerce and law, in the arts and sciences, and in sports.

It is an honor and a pleasure to represent our people in the greatest deliberative body in the greatest democracy in the world. The collected biographies of Hispanic Americans who served in Congress allow us to understand the evolving history of the legislative branch of American government and the contributions of Hispanic Members of Congress in the political process. There is great warmth and pride in knowing that future generations of Hispanics will continue in that tradition and will take their place among the leaders of tomorrow's world.

José E. Serrano, Chairman
Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1993-94

[1] The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1898 marked the end of the Spanish-American War. That document dubbed the island of Puerto Rico, "Porto Rico," and that name was commonly used until the Act of May 17, 1932 officially returned the name of the island to its original Spanish spelling. [Return to text]

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