Separate Interests to National Agendas, 1945–1977

President Harry S. Truman with Governor Jesús Piñero/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_09_truman_pinero_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration President Harry S. Truman (left) rides in an open car in Puerto Rico in 1947 seated next to Governor Jesús Piñero. A year earlier, Truman had appointed Piñero as the first native Puerto Rican governor of the island. Piñero had previously served as Resident Commissioner in the U.S. House.
The Second World War marked another turning point for Hispanic representation in Congress. Of critical importance, it raised the expectations of returning Hispanic-American veterans, as it had for African-American servicemen; in fighting for democracy abroad, many believed that they had earned a greater measure of it, particularly in segregated locations, back home. An organized effort to attain broad civil rights ensued.

That movement followed two paths that converged by the end of the era. On the first path were individuals like Representatives González and Roybal; both were elected in the early 1960s but made their start in public service in the late 1940s, organizing local civil rights groups. Roybal founded the Community Service Organization (CSO) in southern California, and González created the Pan-American Progressive Association (PAPA) in San Antonio, Texas. CSO, PAPA, and similar groups that came into existence at that time advocated for education, housing, and employment issues important to their communities. By the 1960s, dissatisfaction with the pace of change led to the development of younger, more radical causes like the Chicano movement, which sought to spur local reforms and foster ethnic pride.

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans experienced a different path to reform. In 1946, for the first time during U.S. colonial rule, a native Puerto Rican, former Resident Commissioner Jesús Piñero, was appointed to serve as governor. Then the Elective Governor Act of 1948 granted islanders the power to choose their governor at the polls instead of having one imposed on them by presidential fiat. Four years later, largely because of the work of Resident Commissioner Fernós-Isern and political titan Luis Muñoz Marín (the son of former Resident Commissioner Luis Muñoz Rivera), Congress granted Puerto Rico commonwealth status via Estado Libre Asociado (the Free Associated State)—a position that was short of statehood but one that extended federal programs and protections and fostered local autonomy. Resident Commissioners gained more privileges in the U.S. House during a series of institutional reforms in the 1970s, though they now competed with other voices representing insular interests in Washington, D.C.

Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico with President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Clinton P.  Anderson of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/i/intro_10_montoya_lbj_na.xml Image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library/National Archives and Records Administration Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico (right) speaks with President Lyndon Johnson (seated). At left is New Mexico’s other Senator at the time, Clinton P. Anderson.

The 12 Hispanic Americans elected to Congress in this era continued a period of institutional apprenticeship. This generation was the first in which the number of Hispanic voting Members of Congress (six) equaled the number of Hispanic nonvoting statutory representatives. Though statistically small, this trend portended greater possibilities for voting Members, who enjoyed privileges and powers statutory representatives did not, including the ability to accrue the requisite seniority for leadership positions. Hispanic Members continued to earn spots on key committees where none had served previously: In the 80th Congress (1947–1949) Antonio Fernós-Isern of Puerto Rico served on the House Armed Services Committee; in the 85th Congress (1957–1959) Joseph Montoya of New Mexico served on the House Judiciary Committee; in the 87th Congress (1961–1963) González served on the Banking and Currency Committee; and in the 89th Congress (1965–1967) Roybal served on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In the Senate, Dennis Chavez, who entered that chamber in 1935, rose to chair the Post Office and Post Roads Committee in the 79th Congress (1945–1947) and the powerful Public Works Committee in the 81st and 82nd Congresses (1949–1953) and again in the 84th Congress (1955–1957) until his death in 1962 during the 87th Congress (1961–1963).

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