Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

In the summer of 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law an act that expanded Hispanic Heritage Week, first created by Congress in 1968, into Hispanic Heritage Month. Sponsored by California Representative Esteban Torres and Illinois Senator Paul Simon, the new law created an annual month-long celebration of Hispanic-American culture and history.

Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 (the original start date of Hispanic Heritage Week) through October 15. Joining in this celebration, we’re highlighting Members of Congress profiled in Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012.

José M. Gallegos/tiles/non-collection/9/9-25-Gallegos-pn2013_03_0014a.xml Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives José Gallegos brought an independent streak to Washington, frustrating party officials in the New Mexico Territory.

Delegate José M. Gallegos of New Mexico

Of the 10 Hispanic Americans who served in the House during the first period of Hispanic representation in Congress, eight were Delegates from the New Mexico Territory. These Delegates often confronted linguistic and cultural barriers, but they used adept political skill, often honed in New Mexico’s territorial legislature, to fight for statehood on Capitol Hill.

In 1853, José M. Gallegos, a prominent former priest and legislator, became the first Hispanic Member of Mexican descent to serve as a Territorial Delegate in Congress. In the House, he introduced a handful of measures to improve his territory’s infrastructure and to secure pay and resources for the military stationed in New Mexico. Gallegos didn’t speak English and multiple contested elections complicated his House service. His experiences in Congress symbolized the challenges and contradictions inherent in the process of incorporating new lands and peoples into the growing nation. New Mexico attained statehood in 1912, granting Members full voting rights which some legislators—like New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez—wielded in support of Hispanic Americans beyond their districts, particularly the people of Puerto Rico.

Federico Degetau/tiles/non-collection/9/9-25-Degetau-pn2013_03_0008a.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In April 1899, Degetau initiated a campaign to organize new political parties on the island with the intention of pursuing U.S. citizenship and autonomy for Puerto Ricans.

Resident Commissioner Federico Degetau of Puerto Rico

Following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States acquired several new territories, including the island of Puerto Rico. Rather than Territorial Delegates, Congress created the position of Resident Commissioner for Puerto Rico, who today serves for four-year terms in the House.

The careers of the earliest Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners attempted to balance the island’s local needs with an economy that became increasingly intertwined with the mainland. The first Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner in the United States Congress, Federico Degetau, had a distinguished résumé as a celebrated legal scholar, novelist, and politician in Puerto Rico and Spain. He was thoroughly grounded in legal theory and political action, and as a student of American jurisprudence, Degetau welcomed the prospect of U.S. rule. But his reaction soured when the new U.S administrators curbed Puerto Rico’s civil rights and denied the island’s residents full American citizenship. When House Rules prohibited Degetau from speaking—or even sitting—in the chamber, he lobbied for greater parliamentary privileges and served Puerto Ricans by circumventing Congress altogether: speaking to the media, communicating with the executive branch, and representing constituents before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Henry González/tiles/non-collection/9/9-25-Gonzalez-2009_164_4.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Representative Henry González chaired the Banking and Currency Committee from 1989 through 1995. During this time, the committee oversaw restructuring of the federal deposit insurance system, while resisting an effort to loosen restrictions on commercial ownership of banks.

Representative Henry González of Texas

The post-World War II era saw Hispanic-American Members of Congress consolidate their policy and political interests, aiding Puerto Rico’s evolution from territory to commonwealth and pushing to improve the civil rights of Mexican Americans. This convergence of interests led Hispanic-American Members in the 1970s to create the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, providing additional strength to their policy agendas.

Henry González served 37 years in the House, making him the longest-serving Hispanic Member in history. A pioneering, populist figure in Texas state politics, he was revered by his hometown constituents, who knew him as “Henry B.” The San Antonio Democrat rejected radical reformers, pursuing a strategy of effecting change from within the system. His pugnacious style and undeterred commitment to causes and programs he held dear often left him marginalized by those in power at the national level. “Given that the power to influence decisions that affect our lives is concentrated in the established systems of our government, I felt that I could contribute by participating in that process,” González wrote. “There is a place for those who remain outside these processes, but I felt that I could contribute by influencing policy from the inside. Yet even on the inside I have largely remained an outsider because of my refusal to surrender my independence.” Indeed, though Gonzalez was one of the earliest members of the Hispanic Caucus in 1976, he grew increasingly disenchanted and eventually left the caucus he’d helped found.

Representative Hilda Solis of California

More Hispanic Americans have entered Congress since 1977 than during any other period in American history. This increase reflects a number of demographic changes and political reforms. Hispanic Americans became the second largest ethnic group in the United States as of the 2010 Census. Alongside this demographic strength came a broader array of legislative interests and agendas. Hispanic-American Members of Congress also became more prominent which led to leadership and cabinet positions.

An accomplished legislator in the California assembly, Hilda Solis won a seat in the U.S. House from a district in Southern California after she defeated an 18-year incumbent in the primary election. In Congress, Representative Solis championed the interests of working families and women and focused on health care and environmental protection legislation. In December 2008, President-elect Barack Obama chose Representative Solis to serve as Secretary of Labor, a position she held until January 2013.

The profiles of these four Members merely scratch the surface of the rich history of accomplishments and contributions from Hispanic Americans in Congress. Learn more through our website’s exhibition or profiles in our People Search.