Experiences of Hispanic Americans and Other Minorities in Congress

Benigno Hernández of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_02_hernandez_benigno_mnm.xml Image courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), 50403 Benigno Hernández of New Mexico, who served from 1915 to 1917 and 1919 to 1921 in the U.S. House, became the first Hispano to represent his state as a voting Representative.
In some ways the history of Hispanic Members resembles that of other groups who had been newcomers to Congress. For example, by the 20th century, many Hispanic Members—like women and African Americans in Congress— had eventually come to view themselves as “surrogate” representatives for Hispanics nationwide, legislating for individuals far beyond the borders of their individual districts or states.2 Additionally, like the stories of women and African-American Members of Congress, the story of Hispanic Americans in Congress occurred overwhelmingly in the U.S. House: Of the 91 Hispanic Americans who have served in Congress, only seven were Senators, and three of these served in the House first.3

Hispanic-American Members assimilating into the political culture of Capitol Hill participated in the same stages of development that women and African Americans did: pioneering, apprenticeship, and mature integration.4 But although these stages were roughly proportional, they unfolded over a much longer time frame for Hispanic Members than for other groups because of reluctance against incorporating “foreign” peoples into the American body politic and because of the disadvantaged political status of the territories they represented. (Seventeen of the first 25 Hispanic Members of Congress—68 percent through the end of the Second World War—represented territorial possessions.)

Hispanic Members’ story was unique in other aspects, too. After Reconstruction, black Americans experienced a prolonged period of contraction, decline, and exclusion that resulted from segregation and disfranchisement. From 1901 to 1929, there were no blacks in the federal legislature. Conversely, except for the period from the 49th through the 55th Congress (1885–1899)— due largely to political realignments in the New Mexico Territory rather than to direct disfranchisement—Hispanic Americans have consistently served in the federal legislature since the mid-1800s. From 1899 onward, at least one Hispanic American has served in each Congress. Unlike the pioneering women and African-American Members, who faced increased expectations and heightened scrutiny by the media, the earliest Hispanic Members elicited a muted reaction from the court of public opinion. In fact, the sparse coverage of New Mexican Territorial Delegates in Eastern newspapers and, particularly, the limited coverage of Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners by the mainland media, were considerable obstacles in researching this volume.

While seeking to advance within Congress and adapt to its culture, the early generations of Hispanic Members faced racial prejudices. Since there were relatively few of them, they also lacked the ability to organize legislative caucuses. More than one-third of them served as “statutory representatives,” that is, as Delegates or Resident Commissioners who possessed circumscribed legislative powers.5 For the most part, the Constitution did not contemplate such representation over the long term, leaving Congress to establish and manage these offices, whose powers were often strictly limited. Thus, their legislative strategies differed from those of most Representatives and Senators. Quite often, Hispanic-American statutory representatives functioned more like envoys or ministers without portfolio than lawmakers. Consequently, they often served as intercessors between the territorial governments and federal executive departments.

Ladislas Lazaro of Louisiana and Joseph Walsh of of Massachusetts/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_03_lazaro_walsh_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Ladislas Lazaro of Louisiana (right) was a country doctor whose civic service career began on the local school board. Lazaro eventually served in the Louisiana legislature before his 1912 election to the U.S. House. Here, he confers with Representative Joseph Walsh of Massachusetts (left) in 1921.

By the period after World War II, as Hispanic Representatives and Senators became more numerous, they cultivated legislative strategies that were common on Capitol Hill. Some pursued an institutionalist “work horse” strategy; adhering to the prevailing traditions and folkways of the House and Senate, they hoped to shape policies by attaining positions of influence on the inside.6 Representative Henry B. González of Texas (1961–1999), who eventually chaired the powerful House Banking and Currency Committee, embodied such an approach. Though an advocate for civil rights since the early days of his political career, González eschewed identifying himself as a Member who supported Hispanic causes so as not to alienate others. In the 1960s, he repeatedly clashed with more-radical Hispanic activists in the Chicano movement, who embraced the name as a politicized term of self-identification. “Our task is to overcome political isolation, and it is a delicate path that makes the difference between attracting a friend and becoming isolated and alone,” González once noted. “If we cry in an empty room, we may expect to hear only our own echoes.”7 Others, such as Ladislas Lazaro of Louisiana (1913–1927) and Edward Roybal of California (1963–1993), favored a methodical legislative style, diligently immersing themselves in committee work and policy matters.

Other individuals who embraced a “show horse” style were less common; circumventing prescribed congressional channels, they appealed directly to the public and media and became symbols for Hispanic civil rights. Many of the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners—who were already relegated by their restricted role to the margins of institutional power—often bore the mantle of reform, claiming to speak on behalf of all Puerto Ricans. Among them were Luis Muñoz Rivera (1911–1916), Santiago Iglesias (1933–1939), and Antonio Fernós-Isern (1946–1965).

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2For a useful essay on surrogate representation within a larger discussion about “descriptive” versus “substantive” representation, see Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse, “Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress, Eric Schickler and Frances E. Lee, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 241–271.

3The proportions (through June 2012) for African Americans are similar: a total of 132, 126 of whom have served in the House and six of whom have served in the U.S. Senate (4.5 percent of the total). A total of 277 women have served in Congress—238 in the House and 39 in the Senate (14 percent of the total); eight of the women with Senate service had served previously in the House.

4See Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2007): 1–5; Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2008): 1–7.

5See for example, Abraham Holtzman, “Empire and Representation: The U.S. Congress,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 11, no. 2 (May 1986): 249–273.

6For more on the “work horse” versus “show horse” styles, see James L. Payne, “Show Horses and Work Horses in the United States House of Representatives,” Polity 12 (Spring 1980): 428–456.

7For the quotation, see Thomas J. Foley, “‘Brown Power’ Parley Opens This Weekend,” 22 October 1971, Los Angeles Times: A18. See also Jack Rosenthal, “U.S. Latins Vote Political Drive: Office in Capital Planned by Spanish-Speaking Unit,” 25 October 1971, New York Times: 17.