Read essays that provide historical context about four distinct generations of Hispanic Americans in Congress. Among the topics discussed in each essay are institutional developments, legislative agendas, social changes, and national historical events that have shaped the experiences of Hispanic Members of Congress.
Over the last two centuries, Hispanic Americans have worked their way from the outer edges to the inner rings of power in Congress. They have represented diverse areas from Territorial New Mexico to the island of Puerto Rico. Since 1899, at least one Hispanic American has served in every Congress. These Members make up an important but often over-looked chapter of the American experience.
Shaped by America’s continental expansion and its geopolitical upheaval, many of the earliest Hispanic Americans to serve in Congress did so as Delegates from the New Mexico Territory. They often confronted racial prejudices, as well as statutes and House Rules limiting their powers as legislators. Though these Members often served only briefly, they worked to weave the western territories into the national fabric.
Following the Spanish-American War, the United States gained territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean, forcing Congress to change how it administered the country’s insular affairs. While Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. remained unclear, the creation of the Office of the Resident Commissioner gave the island a modest voice in the House. Other Hispanic Members used influential committee assignments to bolster the economy during the Great Depression, and to articulate common concerns.
Many Hispanic Members launched trailblazing careers after World War II. While fostering grassroots activism, they expanded the boundaries of U.S. citizenship and protected civil liberties. And with the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado, Puerto Rico’s Resident Commissioner helped the island win a greater measure of self-governance. These bold efforts culminated in the creation of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Large-scale demographic changes increased power at the ballot box as nearly 60 percent of all Hispanic Americans to serve in Congress won election after 1977. These Members chaired numerous committees and subcommittees, and served as congressional leaders. They were often at the forefront of key issues: voting rights, bilingual education, foreign policy, and America’s immigration system.