Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Recovering Representation in California: Roybal’s Historic House Election

Edward Roybal/tiles/non-collection/1/10-6-Roybal-Portrait-PA2022_02_0006e.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Edward Roybal's election to a Los Angeles congressional district presaged a surge of Hispanic political involvement in national politics.
In 1962, Edward Roybal became the first Hispanic American in almost a century to be elected to the U.S. Congress from the state of California. His victory was a milestone for the Mexican-American community of Los Angeles, which had long struggled for a meaningful voice in the city. But the implications of his win would be felt far beyond southern California. Roybal’s first election to the House of Representatives, 60 years ago this November, provided a foundation for the massive expansion of Latino political influence in districts across the country over the ensuing decades.

Coalition Building: From Council to Congress

Edward Roybal’s path to Capitol Hill started at the local level. Los Angeles in the years after World War II was home to the country’s largest Mexican-American population. Yet its city council had not seated a member of that community since the 1880s. As a candidate in 1949, however, Roybal formed a winning coalition of Mexican Americans, Blacks, Jews, Asian Americans, union members, and other political outsiders to earn a seat on the council representing the city’s Eastside. Mexican Americans made up only 20 percent of the district’s voters, and over the coming decade Roybal pursued a range of goals that united his diverse constituency: defending civil and workers’ rights, opposing police brutality, and championing the right of dissent at the height of the Cold War, when powerful forces were bent on restricting political speech. On the council, Roybal also focused on the everyday requirements of running a major city, ensuring that city workers kept the district’s streets clean, garbage hauled, and streetlights operational.

Roybal Button/tiles/non-collection/1/10-6-Roybalbutton-2007_097_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Like his other rocket-shaped lapel pin, this campaign button used the imagery of the space race to connect with likely Kennedy voters in Los Angeles.
After finding success at the municipal level, Roybal faced persistent barriers to achieving county and state office. But in 1962, an opportunity arose at the federal level. The 1960 U.S. Census had revealed that California would gain eight seats in Congress as the result of extraordinary population growth during the 1950s. Among the new congressional districts state officials drew included one described as “dog-shaped” with a “stubby tail” that extended west to Hollywood and with a “tiny head pok[ing]” east to encompass part of Roybal’s council turf. The redrawn boundaries forced the Republican incumbent to run in a seat designed to benefit Democrats, leading one observer to predict that the state’s new Thirtieth District would “witness a political fracas” of the first order.

The Democratic primary that year was a “slam-bang affair from the beginning,” the Los Angeles Times reported, with several contenders seeking the party’s nomination. Roybal garnered crucial backing from organized labor. But he lacked the unanimous support of Democratic Party power brokers and activists, many of whom got behind his principal opponent, a Loyola University political scientist named William Fitzgerald. On the other hand, the “diversity of ethnic and economic backgrounds” which had made the Thirtieth District “one of the most challenging” to unify happened to play to Roybal’s strength in finding common ground across a range of communities. Roybal energized his multiracial coalition in search of what he called “representation for all the people,” promising to work independently of party bosses who rarely delivered results for their minority constituents. The final vote was not close: Roybal defeated Fitzgerald by a margin of almost three to one.

In the general election, Roybal faced Republican Gordon McDonough, a nine-term incumbent Congressman who had not lost a political race in three decades. But Roybal had ample name recognition, and he could count on powerful allies. In 1960, he had crisscrossed the country as co-chair of the “Viva Kennedy” campaign, rallying Mexican-American and Puerto Rican voters to turn out for the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and his running mate, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. The “Viva Kennedy” campaign was a tremendous success, and in 1962 President Kennedy repaid the favor by endorsing Roybal and sending members of his Cabinet to stump on the candidate’s behalf. The support of the Kennedy administration was important, but Roybal’s true advantage was in the local organization that he and his allies had been nurturing for almost 15 years. At a time when many Black voters still held Republican loyalties, it was just one testament to that record of multiracial coalition-building that both of Los Angeles’ Black newspapers supported Roybal, with the California Eagle declaring that the councilman “tower[ed] head and shoulders” over McDonough. On Election Day, Roybal won with 57 percent of the vote.

Roybal Pin/tiles/non-collection/1/10-6-Rocket-Pin-2007_285_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Capturing the energy of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier message, Roybal's campaign distributed rocket-shaped pins to supporters.

Stepping Onto the National Stage

Upon arriving in Washington, Roybal made clear where he stood on the crucial issues of the day. One of his first speeches in the House was a defense of ongoing civil rights protests, in which he urged his colleagues and fellow Americans “to join in a noble crusade that will rid this country, once and for all, of the poison of racial and minority group discrimination.”

Edward R. Roybal/tiles/non-collection/1/10-6-Roybal-BW-PA2022_02_0006a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Roybal's election victory in 1963 returned a Hispanic Representative to the House from California for the first time in 80 years.

Alongside Roybal’s embrace of Black civil rights activism and his skill at building political coalitions, his election to the House underscored the message of Viva Kennedy: that Hispanic Americans were stepping out onto the national political stage in defense of their distinct interests. In Washington, Roybal faced new challenges convincing lawmakers that his people also desperately needed civil rights protections. Few officials agreed with his claim that Hispanic Americans constituted a distinct and permanent minority, and were not simply another group suffering the same obstacles that Irish and Jewish immigrants, for example, had endured and were thought to have overcome on the road to assimilation. The skepticism and even hostility Roybal encountered led him to devise new strategies for empowering himself and his constituents. It also forced him to build new alliances with leaders far from his base in the Eastside of Los Angeles.

Having gained a foothold in Congress during the tumultuous 1960s, Roybal was tireless in his determination to make “Spanish-speaking Americans” into a national political powerhouse. In the 1970s, he founded important political institutions such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO). He fought for bilingual education. In 1975, he successfully advocated for a new amendment to the Voting Rights Act guaranteeing protections for Hispanic Americans and others long denied full access to the ballot for reasons of language. Roybal also helped push the federal government to create a new “Spanish Origin/Hispanic” Census category that many felt was urgently needed to shed light on the conditions faced by the country’s second-largest minority. In the 1980s, he remained a voice for the protection of immigrants, and assumed a prominent role in legislating on behalf of the nation’s elderly population.

Chairman Roybal Nameplate/tiles/non-collection/1/10-6-Chairman-2008_207_000a-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives In 1983, Roybal was appointed chair of the Select Committee on Aging, where he served as a staunch advocate on behalf of the elderly. Roybal also chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on Treasury, Postal Service, and General Government.

Sixty Years of Service

Roybal served in the House for 30 years before retiring in 1992. In the following Congress, his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard, became the first Mexican-American woman to serve in the House, having been sent to represent a new district that included many of her father’s former constituents. Like her father, Roybal-Allard would go on to serve 30 years in the House and hold a high-ranking post on the House Committee on Appropriations. Edward Roybal “paved the way for the next generation,” she later explained, “just like we’re paving the way for the generation after us.” In fact, while he was one of just four Hispanic Americans in the Congress at the start of his House career, there were 20 Hispanic-American Members serving on Capitol Hill in the year after Roybal retired. When Roybal-Allard announced that she would retire at the end of the 117th Congress (2021–2023), the number of Hispanic Americans who served during that Congress had grown to 51.

As of the 117th Congress, 16 states and four territories have elected a Hispanic-American Member to the House. While many more “firsts” in Hispanic-American electoral representation remain to be achieved, the broad changes that occurred during the 60 years in which Roybal and Roybal-Allard represented Los Angeles in the House are grounded in Edward Roybal’s pioneering efforts on behalf of Hispanic-American political empowerment.

Sources: Congressional Record, Extension of Remarks, 88th Cong., 1st sess. (3 June 1963): 9940; California Eagle (Los Angeles, CA) 18 October 1962; Los Angeles Evening Citizen News (Hollywood, CA): 14 November 1962; Los Angeles Times, 16 August 1961, 18 January 1962, 12 March 1962, 7 May 1962, 26 October 2005; Shana Bernstein, “Interracial Activism in the Los Angeles Community Service Organization: Linking the World War II and Civil Rights Eras,” Pacific Historical Review 80, no. 2 (May 2011); Kenneth C. Burt, The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics (Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 2007); Benjamin Francis-Fallon, The Rise of the Latino Vote: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019); George J. Sánchez, Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021); Katherine Underwood, “Pioneering Minority Representation: Edward Roybal and the Los Angeles City Council, 1949–1962,” Pacific Historical Review 66, no. 3 (August 1997); Katherine Underwood, “Process and Politics: Multiracial Electoral and Representation in Los Angeles’ Ninth District, 1949–1962 (Ph.D. diss., University of California, San Diego, 1992).