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Latino Representation in Congress

Looking back and looking forward - 1960-2011

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: December 23, 2010


Latino Representation in Congress


Hispanic Representation Up To 1960:

From 1900 to 1960, only seventeen Hispanic Americans served in Congress. However, nine of these representatives were Resident Commissioners of Puerto Rico, who did not have voting privileges. Seven more delegates represented New Mexico. Not until 1936 did the first American-born Latino serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. Dennis Ch?ívez, a Democrat, represented his New Mexico constituency for 27 years until his death in 1962.

The Tide Changes in California:

By 1960, the number of Hispanics living in the United States had reached 6.9 million, which represented roughly 3.9% of the total population of the country. Approximately 1.5 million Hispanics lived in California representing more than 9% of the California population, but 20% of these Hispanics were foreign-born, many of whom were not naturalized and, as a result, were not eligible to vote. As a result, not a single one of California's 38 seats in Congress was held by a Chicano representative in 1960.

As the new decade commenced, there were still no Chicanos in the California State Senate, the Assembly or in the California Congressional delegation. There was no representation of the Mexican-American population in any part of California, primarily because of political fracturing of Chicano communities. In the early 1960s, the Chicano community of East Los Angeles was fractured into six separate Congressional districts and, before 1962 none of these districts sent a person with a Spanish surname to the House of Representatives.

However, the redistricting that took place in 1961 did create a Congressional district, which would pave a way for Edward Roybal to run for Congress. In the June 1962 Primary Election, Roybal defeated Loyola University Professor William Fitzgerald and three other candidates to win the Democratic nomination for the 30th Congressional District. In November, he defeated the Republican candidate for the 30th District, Gordon McDonough, by procuring 57% of the vote.

November 1962 Election:

In the November 6, 1962 General Election, Roybal defeated Loyola University Professor William Fitzgerald and thus became the first Hispanic from California to be elected to Congress since the 1879 election of Romualdo Pacheco to California's 4th Congressional District. Edward Roybal took his seat in the House of Representatives on January 3, 1963 at the start of the 88th U.S. Congress. He would serve for twenty years from the 88th Congress to the 102nd Congress, retiring on January 3, 1993.

Texas Representation:

Up to 1960, Congressional redistricting and reapportionment in the State of Texas had been very unfavorable to Tejano and African-American representation. In 1965, a Federal Court held Texas' Congressional Districting act to be unconstitutional and stated that the Texas Legislature must redraw the Texas Congressional Districts in compliance with Wesberry v. Sanders. This would set the stage for a new era of Tejano representation to Congress.

Henry B. Gonz?ílez:

In 1961, Congressman Paul Kilday, a Democrat, was appointed to the federal bench by President John F. Kennedy. This left his congressional seat with the 20th District vacant. In a special election to fill that seat, Henry B. Gonz?ílez (1916-2000), a native of San Antonio, was elected, winning by a margin of 10,000 votes, becoming the first Mexican-American representative to the U.S. Congress from Texas since statehood. Senator Gonz?ílez served as a Congressional Representative from 1961 to 1999 (the 87th to the 105th Congresses).

The Elimination of Voting Barriers:

With the ratification of the 24th Amendment on January 23, 1964, the U.S. Congress helped to bring an end to the Texas poll tax, which had been adopted early in the century. Stating that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by reason of failure to pay any poll tax," the Amendment laid the legal foundation for ending the tax and opening the voting polls to all Texas citizens, Hispanic, Black or White.

In addition, the signing of the "Voting Rights Act of 1965" by President Johnson in 1965 took steps to eliminate any "standard, practice, or procedure," including redistricting plans, which resulted in "denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." This act would have far-reaching consequences for the political representation of Latinos in the coming decades.

Kika de la Garza:

After serving six consecutive terms as a representative in Austin, Eligio "Kika" de la Garza (born 1927) was elected in 1964 to the U.S. House of Representatives to represent Texas' 15th Congressional District, which primarily included the southern towns of McAllen, Edinburg and Kingsville. When the 89th Congress convened in 1965, Representative de la Garza took his seat as a Democrat, effectively ending a thirteen-year career in the Texas House of Representatives. Kika would serve in Congress from January 3, 1965 until the January 3, 1997 (the 89th to 104th Congresses).

A New Decade (the 1970s):

In 1970, California had a total population of 19,971,069 persons. Of this total, 2,369,292 were Hispanics, who made up 10.8% of the state's total population. Of the 2.4 million Hispanics living in California, 490,892 were foreign-born, making up 22.9% of the total Hispanic population. A significant number of the foreign-born residents had never been naturalized and were therefore ineligible for American voting privileges. This represented a significant stumbling block in electing Chicanos to Congress. As a result, Edward Roybal represented the only Chicano sitting among the 43 California Representatives in Congress after the 1971 reapportionment.

In 1970, Texas had only two representatives: Henry B. Gonz?ílez represented Bexar County's 20th District, while Kika de la Garza represented the 15th District of the southern border area. Puerto Rico was represented by Resident Commissioner Jorge Luis C??rdova D?¡az, who served during the 91st and 92nd Congresses (January 3, 1969 to January 3, 1973).

In New Mexico, Manuel Luj?ín, Jr. served as Representative of the First District, while Joseph Manuel Montoya served in the U.S. Senate. Senator Montoya would continue to serve his state as Senator from the 87th to 91st Congresses (November 3, 1964 to January 3, 1977).

Progress during the 1970s:

The 1970s represented new opportunities for Chicano candidates. The beginning of true Hispanic representation would be established during this decade. In 1970, Herman Badillo (born 1929), a native of Puerto Rico, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New York's 21st District in the South Bronx., becoming the first Congressman born in Puerto Rico to represent a district in the continental United States. Congressman Badillo would serve as Representative for his district from the 92nd to 95th Congresses (January 3, 1971 to December 31, 1977).

The 1980s:

According to the 1980 census, Hispanic Americans increased their numbers to 14,608,673 persons at the turn of the decade and now represented 6.4% of the national population. As their numbers began to increase, the political representation of Latinos took small strides forward. In Texas, the Hispanic population had reached 2,985,824, representing 21% of the total state population of 14,225,513. However, in spite of this impressive demographic event, only two of Texas' 24 Representative seats in Congress were occupied by Tejanos: Henry B Gonz?ílez and Kika de la Garza.

Puerto Rico was represented in Congress by Resident Commissioner Baltasar Corrada del R?¡o (born 1935), who would continue to serve in that capacity from the 95th through the 98th Congresses (January 3, 1977 to January 3, 1985). In New Mexico, with the end of Senator Joseph Manuel Montoya's Senate career, Manuel Luj?ín, Jr. served as the sole Hispanic representative of the people of that state.

In New York State, Representative Badillo had resigned in 1978 to become Deputy Mayor of New York City. A special election to fill his position brought Robert Garcia (born 1933), a Bronx native, to Congress.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen:

The 1980s were notable for the election of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (born 1952) who became the first Hispanic woman and Cuban-American elected to Congress. A native of Havana, Cuba, Ileana had immigrated to the United States when she was seven years old. In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to represent Florida's 18th District, becoming the first Hispanic elected to represent Florida in 166 years.

The 1990s:

From the 101st Congress in 1990 to the 105th Congress in 1999, the representation of Latinos in Congress increased from 11 to 19.

The increase in political representation, which was also manifested in several state legislatures, took place as qualified Latino candidates stepped forward to run for offices in states where they had previously held little or no political power. In most cases, these candidates won elections by developing coalitions that crossed ethnic and racial lines.

The first Latino Representative from the State of Illinois, Luis Guti?®rrez, was elected as the Representative of Chicago's Fourth District in the General Election of 1992. A native of Chicago, Representative Guti?®rrez had worked as a teacher, social worker and alderman on the Chicago City Council before his election to the One Hundred and Ninth Congress.

In New Jersey, Robert Men?®ndez, a native of New York City and the son of Cuban immigrants, was elected in 1992 with 64% of the vote to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Hispanic from New Jersey to serve in Congress. Representative Men?®ndez eventually rose to become the third-highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives before moving on to the Senate in 2006. Today, Robert Men?®ndez continues to serve in the U.S. Senate.

The New Millennium - 19 Latino Congressional Representatives:

On November 7, 2000, the first General Election of the New Millennium took place. Before the election, nineteen Hispanic Congressional Representatives served from seven states: California (6 Representatives), Texas (6), New York (2), Florida (2), Arizona (1), Illinois (1) and New Jersey (1). Fifteen of the nineteen Representatives were Democrats, while four were Republicans.

However, by the time the votes had been tallied up from the General Election, it became apparent that Latino representation in Congress would remain at 19, with no significant gains by the group over the previous election in 1998.

The Election of 2002 - 22 Latino Congressional Representatives:

After the November 5, 2002 General Election, Latino representation in Congress would increase from 19 to 22. Although Hispanic representation in Congress would remain confined to seven states, some of those states saw a modest increase in their Latino representation: California (7 representatives), Texas (6), Florida (3), Arizona (2), New York (2), Illinois (1) and New Jersey (1).

The Election of November 2004 - 25 Latino Congressional Representatives:

The Election of November 2, 2004 represented a watershed in Latino political representation, as it brought two Hispanic Senators into that house of Congress, which had not seen a Latino in its chambers since Joseph Montoya had left office in New Mexico 27 years earlier.

A fifth-generation Coloradan, Ken Salazar had served as Colorado's Attorney General for six years before running for the office of Senator. In the General Election of 2004, Salazar, who came from a long line of farmers in the San Luis Valley, was elected to serve as Senator of Colorado's 3rd Congressional District. At the same time, his brother John Salazar became Colorado's first Latino to serve in the House of Representatives.

Also in 2004, Mel Martinez, formerly the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was elected to serve as the first Latino U.S. Senator from the State of Florida. Ironically, New Mexico, which had been represented in Congress by Latinos almost continuously between 1853 and 1997, had no Hispanic representation in either the Senate or the House. In both California and Texas, all of the incumbents had held onto their seats.

Overall, Latino representation in the U.S. Congress reached its highest point in history, with the following numbers:

ÔÇó Arizona (2 Representatives)
ÔÇó California (7 Representatives)
ÔÇó Colorado (1 Senator, 1 Representative)
ÔÇó Florida (1 Senator, 3 Representatives)
ÔÇó Illinois (1 Representative)
ÔÇó New Jersey (1 Representative)
ÔÇó New York (2 Representatives)
ÔÇó Texas (6 Representatives)

The victories of the incumbents and challengers brought the representation of Latinos to 25 at the start of 2005, a significant jump from the six Congressional Representatives who were serving twenty-five years earlier (1980)

The Election of November 2006 - 26 Latino Congressional Representatives:

In November 2006, the number of Hispanic citizens eligible to vote reached 17.2 million, or 8.6% of the total electorate, a slight increase from the 2004 figure of 8.2%. In the U.S. Senate, Robert Menendez won election to serve his first full term as the nation's first Latino U.S. Senator from New Jersey. As a result, for the first time in history, three Latinos were serving in the U.S. Senate.

In the U.S. House, all Latino Democratic incumbents won their re-election campaigns. And they were joined by State Representative Albio Sires (D-NJ), who gained the seat formerly held by Robert Menendez before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate. All three Latino Republican incumbents in Florida were also successful in their re-election bids, meaning that the number of Latino Representatives in the House remained at 23 (20 Democrats and 3 Republicans).

The Election of November 2008 - 27 Latino Congressional Representatives:

The William C. Vel?ísquez Institute reported that, by the time of the November 2008 Presidential election, the Latino electorate had grown to an estimated 12.1 million registered voters. Ultimately, 9.7 million Latinos cast votes in the election, representing a 79.85% turnout figure. The Latinos also represented 7.43% of all votes cast in the United States during that election.

In the November 2008 election, all Latino incumbents won their re-election campaigns. They were joined by Ben R. Lujan, a Democrat, who became the first Latino to represent New Mexico in Congress since Governor Bill Richardson's tenure in Congress had ended a decade earlier. With Lujan's addition to the House, there were now 24 Latinos serving as voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

However, by the end of January 2009, the number of Hispanics in the U.S. Senate decreased from three to two, with the resignation of Ken Salazar (Colorado) to join President Obama's cabinet as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, and Mel Martinez, R-FL, continued to occupy the Senatorial seats that they had won.

With Salazar's resignation, the number of Latino Congressmen dropped back to 26 representatives.

The Election of November 2010 (26 Latino Congressional Representatives:

According to the national House exit poll in November 2010, Latinos represented the same share of all voters that they did in 2006 (8%). The number of eligible Latino voters had increased to 19 million, representing more than 9% of all eligible voters nationwide.

On November 3, 2010, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) reported that when the 112th Congress convenes in January 2011, it "will have a record number of Latino Republicans in the U.S. House." The New York Times, commenting on this trend, reported that "Latinos won an unprecedented voice in the Republican Party with the election of more Latino Republicans than ever before -- sometimes without the support of Latino voters."

In all, there will be five new GOP Hispanic members of the House: two from Texas (Bill Flores of Bryan and Francisco Canseco of San Antonio); Jaime Herrera of Camas, Washington (the first Latino to represent that state); Raul Labrador from the Idaho district that includes Boise, and David Rivera of the Miami area of Florida.

In addition, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio was also elected to the Senate and would become the one and only Hispanic Republican member of the U.S. Senate since Senator Mel Mart?¡nez had retired from the seat in August 2009. With the election of Rubio to the Senate and the upset victory of Republican Bill Flores over Democratic Representative Chet Edwards, a 10-term incumbent in Texas, there will now be a total of eight Latino Republicans in the House and Senate.

The eight Hispanic Republican Congressmen will join 18 Latino Democrats, three fewer than before (after the election losses of Representatives Ciro D. Rodr?¡guez and Solomon P. Ortiz in Texas and Representative John Salazar in Colorado). This would bring the total number of Latino Congressional Representatives in the new congress to 26.

Some of the most impressive milestones are noted here:

In Idaho's First District, Republican Ra??l Labrador becomes the first Latino to represent that state in the U.S. Congress. In Washington State's Third District, Representative Jaime Lynn Herrera, a Republican, becomes the state's first Latina to represent the state in the U.S. Congress, defeating businessman Danny Heck. NALEO's press release observed the same trends that the New York Times had noticed, reporting that "several of these candidates successfully ran in districts which do not have Latino majorities, demonstrating that Latinos are able to run in non-Latino districts and can have broad appeal across all ethnicities and communities."

In addition to proving that many Latino candidates have broad appeal across ethnic and social lines, the November 2010 gave Latinos Congressional representation in more states than ever before: California, Florida, Texas, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York.

Primary Sources:

Fenner, Louise, "Hispanic Voters and Candidates Influence U.S. Elections," November 5, 2010, Online: http://www.america.gov/st/democracyhr-english/2010/November/20101105185027esiuol0.2705347.html

Gonzalez, Antonio and Ochoa, Steven, "The Latino Vote in 2008: Trends and Characteristics" (Los Angeles, William C. Velasquez Institute, 2009).

Lacey, Marc and Preston, Julia, "Some Setbacks Aside, Latinos Reached Milestones in Midterm Races," New York Times, Nov. 6, 2010, pg. A.15.

Los Angeles Times Articles

NALEO, "Record Number of Latino Republics to Join New Congress," Nov. 3, 2010 Press Release.

NALEO, "Latinos Achieve New Political Milestones in Congress and State Houses, Nov. 5, 2008 Press Release.

Recio, Maria, "Hispanic candidates win big Tuesday, most in GOP," McClatchy Washington DC News Bureau. Washington, D.C.: Nov 3, 2010.

Schmal, John P, "The Journey to Latino Political Representation" (Heritage Books, 2007).

U.S. Census Bureau

About John P. Schmal:
A native of the Los Angeles area, John P. Schmal is a genealogist, historian and market analyst. He specializes in researching families in Jalisco, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes.
Author's website




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