Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995
Esteban Torres was born in Miami, Gila County, Arizona on January 27, 1930. At age six, his family moved to East Los Angeles where he attended public schools. After graduating from James A. Garfield High School in 1949 he joined the U.S. Army and served in the Corps of Engineers during the Korean conflict; he was discharged in 1953 holding the rank of sergeant first-class. Afterward, he worked as an assembly-line welder, and became active in the United Auto Workers (U.A.W.); in 1958 he was elected chief steward of Local 230, and later was appointed U.A.W. organizer for the western region. At the same time, with the help of the GI Bill, he attended East Los Angeles College in 1959, and California State University at Los Angeles in 1963. That same year he was appointed U.A.W. international representative in Washington, D.C.; during the next four years, he was the Union's director for the Inter-American Bureau for Caribbean and Latin American Affairs.
In 1968 Torres returned to Los Angeles, where he founded The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), a community action program that under his leadership grew to be one of the nation's largest anti-poverty agencies. He was TELACU's chief executive officer until 1974. During the same time, he served in a variety of organizations, including the Los Angeles County Commission on Economic Development and the Mexican-American Commission on Education (1970-1972), and he was president of the Plaza de la Raza Cultural Center in 1973.
In 1974 he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives. That same year, he returned to Washington as assistant director of the U.A.W. International Affairs Department and participated in numerous international trade union conferences. In 1976, he was a delegate to the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) Central Committee meetings in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Torres to the post of U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, France. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with the rank of Ambassador. In 1978 he served as chairman of the Geneva Group, vice president to the UNESCO General Conference, and he also was elected to the UNESCO executive board. In 1979 he was appointed special assistant to President Jimmy Carter, and functioned as the director of the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs.
Torres was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 to represent the newly-created 34th District in California that includes the East Los Angeles business district, Pico Rivera, Whittier and Santa Fe Springs, and other environs of the San Gabriel Valley. In 1990 Hispanics, which included both blue and white collar workers, made up over sixty percent of the population in his district. He was subsequently reelected seven times, each time with at least sixty percent of the vote.
In his first term, Torres was appointed to the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, where he served until the 102nd Congress. He also served on the Committee on Small Business during this time. He asked the Environmental Protection Agency to close a neglected landfill that caused hazardous-waste problems in his district. He also worked on the 1983 Hazardous Waste Control Act, which requires landfill owners to carry out studies of health risks to nearby communities from the effects of substances in their landfill. In 1984 he spoke out against a guest worker program for agricultural laborers, which in his opinion would lead to exploitation based on his own experience with poor working conditions in the fields.
During the 100th Congress, he served as the Chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and continued his work on the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee. His efforts led to numerous successful pieces of legislation. In the 102nd Congress, he became Majority Deputy Whip and participated on the House-Senate conference committee on a bill that contained important changes in federal housing programs. Through his influence, the bill included a disaster-assistance program for low-income people. During the same Congress he became Chairman of the Consumer Affairs and Coinage Subcommittee, where he worked on a bill to grant consumers easier access to their credit histories, and help them correct mistakes in their credit reports. He also authored a bill, the Truth-in-Savings Act of 1992, to simplify the disclosure of interest rates and conditions for savings accounts, which was signed into law.
In the 103rd Congress, Torres became a member of the Appropriations Committee, and his anti-gang legislation became law as part of the 1994 Crime Bill.
Torres is an official congressional observer to the Arms Reduction Talks (START) in Geneva, Switzerland, and a member of the Joint Committee of the U.S. Congress-European Parliament.