Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995
Edward Roybal was born on February 10, 1916 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. At the age of six, his family moved to the Boyle Heights barrio of Los Angeles, where he attended public schools. He graduated from Roosevelt High School, and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. He subsequently continued his education at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he studied business administration, and at Southwestern University, where he studied law. From 1942 to 1944 he was a public health educator for the California Tuberculosis Association. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1945, he returned to Los Angeles and continued his work with the California Tuberculosis Association, becoming a director of health education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Association, where he remained until 1949.
In 1947, Roybal ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, but he was defeated. With the help of Fred Ross and a group of Mexican-Americans who had supported his campaign, he created the Community Service Organization (CSO). As president of the organization, Roybal led a crusade against discrimination in housing, employment, and education. In 1949 the CSO held voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in East Los Angeles and supported Roybal's bid for election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. He won, and was subsequently reelected and served until 1962. During his tenure on the city council, he gained attention for his vote against the Subversive Registration Bill, which required written oaths as a measure of American loyalty for employment purposes. Although his supporters advised him on the danger of this action for his political career, he voted against the bill. During his last term on the council he served as president pro-tempore.
Roybal was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6, 1962. He was the first Hispanic from California to serve in Congress since the 1879 election of Romualdo Pacheco. Subsequently, Roybal, who faced little opposition in the primaries, was reelected with at least two-thirds of the vote in the general election. In his first term in Congress, Roybal served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and the Post Office Committee. During his second term, he was assigned to the Foreign Affairs Committee; two years later, in addition to his previous committee assignments, he served on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, he continued to work on behalf of Spanish-speaking people. In 1967 Roybal authored the first bilingual education bill to provide local school districts assistance with special-bilingual teaching programs. In 1968 with the goal of improving educational, housing, and employment opportunities for Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens, he worked to establish a Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-speaking people.
During the 1970's Roybal remained committed to Hispanics, the elderly, the poor, and the physically-challenged. In 1971, he relinquished his previous committee assignments for a seat on the Appropriations Committee, on which he served until his retirement. In the 93rd Congress, Roybal introduced legislation to provide bilingual proceedings in courts. To support his legislation, he drew upon a report that disclosed widespread discrimination, police misconduct, and the denial of equal protection under the law in the administration of justice toward Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Roybal also worked on behalf of Vietnam-era veterans. In the 95th Congress, Roybal played an important role in the passing of legislation to outlaw age discrimination, and he worked for numerous benefits and opportunities for those with handicaps. In 1976, Roybal became one of the founding members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In 1978, when disciplinary action was recommended for Roybal and two other California Representatives in connection with a House investigation on vote-buying by Korean lobbyist Tongson Park, he received support from fellow Representatives and leaders of the Hispanic community. The House Ethics Committee recommended a reprimand for the other two Members, and censure -- a more serious punishment -- for Roybal. Representatives Ronald V. Dellums (D-CA) and Phillip Burton (D-CA) spoke on Roybal's behalf. After Hispanic leaders requested the penalty be reduced to a reprimand, the House agreed. Roybal saw this not as a personal triumph, but as a victory for the nation's Hispanics, showing their strength when they united behind a cause.
In the 1980's, Roybal showed leadership in various important posts: he was named Chairman of the Treasury-Postal Service-General Government Subcommittee and served on the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Both of these Appropriations Committee panels fit in well with Roybal's legislative goals. He also served on the Select Committee on Aging, of which he became Chairman in the 98th Congress. From these positions, he worked on various legislative proposals; in 1980 he led the campaign for the restoration of funds to programs for the elderly, including a senior citizens' public housing program and a community-based alternative to nursing homes. That same year he voted to strengthen fair housing laws and to establish a Department of Education. In 1982 he was successful in maintaining the Meals on Wheels program and protecting veterans' preference jobs. The following year he voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
During the 97th Congress, Roybal chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he led the opposition against the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which imposed sanctions on U.S. employers who hired illegal immigrants.
In the 100th Congress, Roybal worked for the expansion of rural mental health-care programs, and the establishment of a national mental health education program. In the 101st Congress, Roybal played a key role in helping to pass legislation that reversed a 1989 Supreme Court decision allowing age-based discrimination in employee benefits. In this same Congress, he continued his work on health-care issues; he was instrumental in renewing legislation to provide medical service to people with Alzheimer's disease. He stated that because of the growth of the elderly population of the nation, it was of extreme importance to fund research leading to the prevention and treatment of the disease.
In 1992, he chose not to run for reelection. That year his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represents part of his old district, which was divided in redistricting.
During his three decades of service in the U.S. House of Representatives, Roybal worked to protect the rights of minorities, the elderly, and the physically-challenged. Throughout his career, he received numerous honors and awards, including two honorary doctor of law degrees from Pacific States University and from Claremont Graduate School. In 1973, Yale University honored him with a visiting Chubb Fellowship. In 1976, the County of Los Angeles opened the Edward R. Roybal Clinic in East Los Angeles.
After serving his country in Congress, Roybal spent the rest of his life as a citizen of the state of California. On October 24, 2005, he died of respiratory failure complicated by pneumonia. He was 89 years old.
For further reading:
Alford, Harold. The Proud Peoples. New York: David McKay Co., 1972.
Diaz, Katherine A., "Congressman Edward Roybal: Los Angeles Before the 1960's," Caminos 4:7 (July-August 1983).
Ralph Nader Congress Project. Edward Ross Roybal, Democratic Representative from California. Washington, D.C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.