Precongressional Experience

Family Origins

Francisco Perea of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_16_perea_francisco_mnm.xml Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), 105371 Delegate Francisco Perea used his position to influence the selection of federal appointees to the New Mexico Territory. Perea was an ardent supporter of the reservation system to maintain peace among Anglos, Hispanos, and American Indians in the territory.
Every Hispanic-American Member who served in the House during this era was born in a region of continental North America that had been under Spanish rule for centuries. Two were subjects of the Spanish crown: Joseph Marion Hernández, born in 18th-century Spanish Florida, and José Manuel Gallegos, born in present-day New Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, six years before Mexican independence. Romualdo Pacheco was born in Mexico’s Alta province in modern-day Santa Barbara, California. Of the remaining seven individuals, all but Tranquilino Luna were born in Nuevo Mexico, on the northern borderlands of the new nation of Mexico. Luna was born in New Mexico in 1849 before it became a territory, during the period of U.S. occupation after the war with Mexico.

All of the Hispanic-American Members came from upper-class backgrounds; some were landed gentry or even feudal barons, and others were from well-to-do merchant families. Hernández married into wealth and at one point owned more than 40,000 acres, three plantations, and dozens of slaves in Florida. Pacheco, whose father and namesake came from a leading Mexican family and died when he was an infant, benefited from his stepfather’s shipping fortune.

New Mexico provides the clearest example of the centralization of political power and economic privilege among the nuevomexicano elite. All of the 19th-century Hispano Delegates were members of the local ruling class. Most were the scions of prominent political dynasties or wealthy merchant families that had been in the region for two centuries. Many of these Hispano elites were further enmeshed by marriage or business ventures. Their power bases derived from their families’ control over massive Spanish land grants, county-level politics, or the emerging mercantile and industrial economies, and sometimes a combination of all three. Unlike the Anglo politicians, who tended to be lawyers, the Hispano elites were usually ranchers or merchants, or both. Compared to average Members of the U.S. Congress in this era, the members of this class had accumulated considerable wealth.57 Collectively, 19th-century Hispanic Members had vast entrepreneurial experience, including commerce, plantation-scale agriculture, large-scale ranching operations, and mercantile pursuits. With respect to most other types of experience, such as military service or prior careers as legislators or practicing lawyers, these Members mirrored their House contemporaries.58

Mariano Otero of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_17_otero_mariano_sabino_nma.xml Image courtesy of the Miguel A. Otero Photograph Collection (PICT 000-021-0127), Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico A successful entrepreneur who served a term as New Mexico’s Delegate to Congress (1879–1881), Mariano Otero aligned himself with the powerful Santa Fe Ring to expand his political influence.

Most New Mexican Hispano Delegates were interrelated by blood or by marriage.59 Particularly prominent were the Otero, Perea, and Chaves families. Francisco Perea, who represented the New Mexico Territory in the House during the Civil War, and his cousin José Francisco Chaves (Territorial Delegate from 1865 to 1871) were the grandsons of Francisco Xavier Chaves, governor of Nuevo Mexico in the 1820s. Their families dominated Bernalillo County, which encompassed Albuquerque. Mariano Otero (Delegate from 1879–1881), nephew of Miguel Otero, Sr. (Delegate from 1856–1861), married into the politically active Perea family; his brother-in-law, Pedro Perea, the cousin of Francisco Perea, served as Territorial Delegate from 1899 to 1901.

The fact that Members of Congress in this era tended to have privileged backgrounds was reflected in their access to higher education. From 1820 to 1900, the percentage of House Members who had graduated from or attended college rose from roughly 40 percent to better than 62 percent.60 By that measure, the Hispanic Members of Congress during the 1800s were exceptionally well educated; eight of the 10 attended college, with two studying law and another, medicine. Gallegos, who attended seminary and was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, became one of the few priests ever to serve in Congress. Like many of the New Mexican elite, half of this group attended colleges in Missouri at the northern terminus of the 800-mile-long Santa Fe Trail, attesting to the route’s importance not only for trade but also for cultural exchange.61

Most of these Hispanic-American Members were born in the 1830s and 1840s and entered the House at a younger age than did the rest of the membership. The average age when they began serving in the House was 36.5 years. This figure was substantially lower than the average age (41.5 years) of the general population of House Members, which tended to be older each decade from the 1820s to the 1890s.62 The youngest Hispanic-American Member elected during this era was New Mexico Territorial Delegate José Francisco Chaves, who entered the House at age 31; the oldest was Romualdo Pacheco of California, who had already enjoyed a long career in state politics when he came to the House at age 45.63 One significant result of this trend, discussed later, was that these relatively youthful Members, particularly in the New Mexico Territory, engaged elder nuevomexicanos in political disputes with a decidedly generational edge.

José Francisco Chaves of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/p/part1_18_chaves_jose_francisco_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Delegate José Francisco Chaves of New Mexico served in the House during the late 1860s and early 1870s.
The overwhelming majority (eight of 10) of the Hispanic Members in the 19th century had experience in elective political office; at least six served in the territorial legislature. In territorial New Mexico, the Anglos controlled many of the territorial appointments, such as governor, secretary, U.S. attorney,and district and supreme court justices, whereas the Hispanos controlled the territorial legislature since the overwhelmingly Hispanic population gave them a decided electoral advantage.64 Gallegos served as a legislator in the Mexican government and as a delegate in the New Mexico Territory’s legislative assembly in the early 1850s; between his terms as Delegate to Congress (1853–1856 and 1871–1873), he was the powerful and longtime speaker of the majority Hispano territorial legislature. Others had notable executive experience at the state and territorial level; Pacheco served as California’s governor and treasurer, and Miguel Otero served briefly as the attorney general of the New Mexico Territory.

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57For instance, in 2011 dollars, both Gallegos and Chaves were likely millionaires. Their known assets totaled in the high hundreds of thousands, roughly $725,000 and $950,000, respectively (using 1870 as the basis year). Mariano Otero also had accumulated more than $250,000 in 2011 dollars. Asset information for most other Hispanic Members of Congress from this era is incomplete. See the chart “Assets of Delegates Elected to the United States Congress,” in Carlos Brazil Ramirez, “The Hispanic Political Elite in Territorial New Mexico: A Study of Classical Colonialism,” Ph.D. diss., University of California–Santa Barbara (June 1979): 270. These figures were calculated using data from the historical Consumer Price Index. Other methods of calculation, including Gross Domestic Product, sometimes result in drastically different valuations. For a discussion of the difficulty involved in accounting for inflation conversion factors and determining the relative value of dollars over long periods, see Oregon State University’s “Inflation Conversion Factors in final 2011 Dollars for 1774 to Estimated 2022” at (accessed 24 July 2012). For a detailed description of the involvement of the Otero, Perea, and Chaves clans in the lucrative trade along the Santa Fe Trail, see Susan C. Boyle, Los Capitalistas: Hispano Merchants and the Santa Fe Trade (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997). Ramirez provides a useful analysis of this cohort as well as comparisons with Anglo political elites on pp. 260–325.

58See Allan G. Bogue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibben, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Process of Modernization, 1789– 1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): Tables 2 and 3, pp. 284, 286.

59A number of Delegates from the New Mexico Territory were related by marriage. For detailed information, see Miguel Otero, Jr., to Ansel Wold, 9 November 1928, textual files of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (hereinafter referred to as textual files of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress). For background and detailed explanations of the familial relationships between the New Mexico Delegates, see Ramirez, “The Hispanic Political Elite in Territorial New Mexico: A Study of Classical Colonialism”: 22–26, 284–288, 298, 300–301, 306–307, 312–313. Some of the bloodlines were quite complicated. Francisco Perea married Dolores Otero, a niece of Miguel Antonio Otero. Henry Connelly, who served as governor of the territory after the Civil War, married Dolores Perea,the mother of José Francisco Chaves. When Chaves became a Delegate, his stepfather was governor of the territory.

60Bogue et al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Process of Modernization, 1789–1960”: Table 1, p. 282.

61Alvin R. Sunseri, Seeds of Discord: New Mexico in the Aftermath of the American Conquest, 1846–1861 (Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1979): 68. “Some Mexican-Americans,” notes Sunseri, “in a desperate effort to insure that their children would be prepared to deal with the Anglo-American invaders on more equal terms, sent them to school in Missouri.”

62Bogue et al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Process of Modernization, 1789–1960”: 275–302; see especially Table 6, p. 291. From 1820 to 1900, Members’ median age at their entry into the House increased from 39 to 44 years.

63The median age of the first generation of Hispanic-American Members of Congress elected to Congress (36.5 years) was far younger than that of the first generation of women elected to Congress (50 years), but just slightly younger than the average age of African-American Members during Reconstruction (41.5 years) and the early Jim Crow Era (36.95 years). In part, the median age for first-generation women in Congress (1917–1934) was higher because the professionalization of Congress (in which many politicians whose median terms of service rose significantly as they began to make a career of service in Washington) occurred over the course of several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For a comparative analysis of the background of pioneer cohorts of women and African Americans in Congress, see Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2007): 24–26, and Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2008): 22–25.

64Ramirez, “The Hispanic Political Elite in Territorial New Mexico: A Study of Classical Colonialism”: 557–558, 575. From the establishment of the territory in 1850 to 1880, nuevomexicanos dominated the territorial legislature. According to Ramirez, nuevomexicanos accounted for “more than sixty percent of men elected to the territorial council and over seventy percent of those elected to the House. They served over seventy percent of the terms in both houses and were reelected to office more often than Anglo-American legislators.” See Ramirez, pp. 440–441 for specific figures.