From Democracy's Borderlands: Hispanic-American Representation, 1822–1898

President William Howard Taft signs the New Mexico statehood bill./tiles/non-collection/i/intro_04_taft_signing_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In the foreground, President William Howard Taft signs the New Mexico statehood bill. The United States, which acquired a vast swath of land in the Southwest ceded by Mexico after the U.S.-Mexican War, administered New Mexico as a territory for more than 60 years before admitting it to the Union in 1912. Most nineteenth-century Hispanic Americans in Congress were Delegates from New Mexico.
The congressional careers of the 10 Hispanic Americans who served during this era unfolded along with U.S. continental expansion. Each represented constituents whose native lands had been acquired by war or diplomacy from Spain or Mexico. For much of the 19th century, these lands lay at the far edges of the U.S. frontier. All but one of these Hispanic Americans—Representative Romualdo Pacheco of California—were Territorial Delegates, and the vast majority were from the New Mexico Territory, carved out of the lands ceded to the United States by Mexico in the wake of their conflict from 1846 to 1848.

The educational, professional, and social backgrounds of these Hispanic Members of Congress, particularly the eight Territorial Delegates from New Mexico, were strikingly similar. These Members were wealthy businessmen or landowners, well educated, and connected by fledgling political organizations and overlapping kinship networks. Their families had long played a governing role in the region in the era of Spanish rule predating Mexican independence. Several members of this cohort owned numerous Indian slaves; in Florida, Joseph Hernández operated massive plantations by using several hundred African-American slaves.

Their legislative strategies varied widely, though invariably they focused on basic infrastructure improvements, particularly roads and railways that would be important to any territory. None of these individuals were “surrogate representatives” in the sense that they represented Hispanic interests nationally, but several of them acted as ambassadors for their own Spanish-culture constituencies. José Manuel Gallegos, the first Hispanic Delegate from New Mexico, was a defrocked priest, a former Member of the Mexican legislative assembly, and an ardent Mexican nationalist. Gallegos understood implicitly that his overwhelmingly nuevomexicano constituency placed “peculiar demands” on Congress. “They are in their origins,” he explained to the House, “alien to your institutions, your laws, your customs, your glorious history, and even strangers to your language…. I am, and have ever been, one of that very people.”8 

Puck's Waiting for Their Stars/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_05_columbia_territories_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A Puck cartoon from 1902, Waiting for Their Stars, depicts three territories, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma, waiting to become states. Columbia promises, “Your stars shall be put on the flag just as soon as those politicians in Congress will let me.” Oklahoma entered the Union in 1907; New Mexico and Arizona followed five years later.

As Territorial Delegates, this generation of Hispanic Members of Congress had few substantive legislative accomplishments. The hurdles to effecting legislative change were numerous, although most were not as overt as the refusal by the House in 1854 to grant Delegate Gallegos an interpreter on the floor. (He spoke no English, and a clerk read his translated floor speeches throughout his House tenure). Far more subtle, but more profound, was the protean role of the Territorial Delegate in the 19th-century House. The institution, growing because of westward expansion, greeted the steady stream of territorial representatives in an improvisational fashion—putting in place an ad hoc system of representation whereby Congress crafted laws and set procedural rules that gave territories a limited voice in national affairs. Adding to the difficulty of addressing the interests of the large Hispanic population in the Southwest, too few Hispanic Members served at any one time to drive a legislative agenda. Except during three Congresses (the 45th through the 47th, 1877–1883), each with a pair of Hispanic Members who served simultaneously, most of these individuals served their brief terms as the only Hispanic in the national legislature.

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8Congressional Globe, House, 34th Cong., 1st sess. (23 July 1856): 1730.