Crafting an Identity

Committee Assignments and Leadership

Dennis Chavez of New Mexico/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_06_chavez_dennis_sho.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office New Mexico’s Dennis Chavez was the first Hispanic Member to serve in both houses of Congress. Elected to office during the New Deal, he served in the House for two terms before winning election to the Senate. Throughout his career, Chavez supported public works projects, national defense, and civil rights issues.
Several members of this generation of Hispanic Americans in Congress held prominent committee assignments. Like their House colleagues, many sat on committees that reflected their legislative interests.11 Four individuals served as committee chairs. Henry González and Kika de la Garza led standing committees (the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee and the Agriculture Committee, respectively) after serving long apprenticeships. Republican Manuel Luján was the Ranking Member on two committees.12 Although he did not chair a standing committee, Joseph Montoya held prominent committee posts early in his congressional career, serving on the Judiciary Committee as a freshman and on the House Appropriations Committee in his second term. Montoya later served on the Senate Appropriations Committee after he was elected to that chamber in 1964.

Initially, Resident Commissioners operated under the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, which limited their participation to the House Committees on Agriculture, Armed Services, Insular Affairs, and Interior and Insular Affairs (formerly called Public Lands) and prevented them from voting in committees, gaining seniority, or wielding the chairman’s gavel. That changed after the Córdova Amendment was adopted as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, making Resident Commissioners more like full Members.13 Had he been permitted as Resident Commissioner to accrue seniority, Antonio Fernós-Isern would have been the senior member of the Committee on Insular Affairs. “He [has] been a most able member of [the] Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and is the most senior member in point of longevity,” Chairman Wayne Aspinall of Colorado said of Fernós-Isern.14

Although this generation of Hispanic-American Members made significant strides—serving for multiple terms of service, acquiring attractive committee assignments, and gaining seniority so as to become chairman or Ranking Members—none served in a party leadership position.

Numbers of Hispanic Americans in Congress

The cohort of Hispanic Americans in Congress grew during this era, despite the fact that for more than a decade—from the 79th to the 86th Congresses (1945–1961)—there were just three Hispanic-American Members serving simultaneously. Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, At-Large Representative Antonio Fernández of New Mexico, and Resident Commissioner Antonio Fernós-Isern served for much of this period. New Mexico and Puerto Rico continued to send the most Hispanic Americans to Congress and to re-elect the most Hispanic-American Members to consecutive terms. Fernós-Isern served for a total of 18 years (1946–1965). Fernández served in the House for 13 years until his untimely death in 1956. There were still three Hispanic-American Members after Fernández’s successor, Joseph Montoya, was elected in 1957. However, the number of Hispanic-American Members began to increase with the election of Henry González in 1961. At the start of the 88th Congress (1963–1965), there were four Hispanic-American Members in the House with the election of Edward Roybal of California. After Dennis Chavez died in 1962, it was another two years until Hispanic-American Joseph Montoya was elected to the Senate. By the start of the 92nd Congress (1971–1973), the number of Hispanic-American Members had increased with the election of Ron de Lugo of the Virgin Islands. However, Hispanic Americans were still grossly underrepresented relative to their percentage of the general population, which was concentrated in the Southwest. “Seven million voters have but six elected officials, one Senator and five Members of Congress,” Montoya noted on the Senate Floor in 1972. “Three million Chicanos in California have but one congressman, Edward R. Roybal … [in] New York City … one and a half million Puerto Ricans have but one representative … in the person of Herman Badillo.”15

Legislative Interests

Herman Badillo of New York with Ron Dellums of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_07_dellums_badillo_hu.xml Image courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University In this undated photograph, Herman Badillo of New York (right) talks with Ronald Dellums of California (left) on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Their small numbers meant that the Hispanic Members of Congress lacked influence to push a legislative agenda for much of this period. Often, even while major civil rights bills worked their way through Congress, these Members remained on the legislative sidelines. Historian Juan Gómez-Quiñones notes that although these Members “did not have a major impact on legislation … [they] contributed to the informational and coordinative resources available to Mexican American organizations” and secured employment for Hispanic Americans in other areas of the federal government.16 Many Hispanic legislators worked behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for the passage of significant bills. Representative Antonio Fernández helped Fernós-Isern shepherd legislation that enabled Puerto Rico to elect its own governor and establish the island as a commonwealth. Fernández guided the Elective Governor Act of 1948 (P.L. 80-362) to passage by blocking an amendment that would have altered the measure; he also authorized legislation for the ELA, despite charges by more-conservative Members that he was promoting socialism.17 Within the New Mexico delegation, Senator Chavez worked with Fernández and Joseph Montoya to promote legislation that helped the state. In one case, the delegation secured passage of S. 107 (P.L. 87-483), a bill that authorized the Department of the Interior to build an irrigation project for Navajo Indians along the Colorado River for $221 million in 1962.18

Throughout this period, Hispanic Americans in Congress broadly supported the emerging civil rights agenda, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its extensions in 1970 and 1975, but by the late 1960s, there were divisive opinions on certain pieces of legislation. In 1968 Joseph Montoya introduced S. 740, a bill to establish a presidential Cabinet committee to develop recommendations for jobs for Hispanic Americans. According to Montoya, passage of the bill would “assure that Federal programs are reaching all Spanish Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, Cuban Americans, and all other Spanish-speaking and Spanish-surnamed Americans, to provide the assistance they need, and to seek out new programs that might be necessary to handle programs that are unique to such persons.”19 Although Representatives Luján, Roybal, and de la Garza voted to pass the bill, Henry González voted against it because it lacked “powers to act, and none to compel action. Nor have we given any mandate to the Executive to Act,” he said. “What we have done … is to create an illusion and we are calling that help.”20 The bill passed the Senate with minor amendments and then passed the House with a few amendments, becoming law (83 Stat. 838, 1969–1970) on December 30, 1969.21

Although they worked hard within the institution and helped improve the experience of Hispanic Americans nationwide, Hispanic-American Members also spent considerable time on their districts. As the Representative of a district with high levels of unemployment, Luján supported legislation to extend tax credits to businesses in economically deprived states like New Mexico. Luján’s district included several American Indian reservations, and throughout his tenure he supported tribal sovereignty, including the return of land titles to Taos Pueblos and financial assistance for tribal economic development.22 Like most Western Congressmen (of both parties), Luján sought to protect local water rights and opposed what he saw as excessive federal control over New Mexico’s water resources. Luján’s regional focus and attention to his district easily won him re-election for most of his congressional career.23 Herman Badillo also adopted a district-centered approach. With his many disadvantaged constituents in mind, Badillo consistently supported legislation to help the poor, including initiatives to increase employment, provide comprehensive child care, and start community development programs.24

Unidos Meeting of 1971

Joseph Montoya of New Mexico, Edward Roybal of California, and Herman Badillo of New York/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_08_unidos_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration From left to right: Senator Joseph Montoya of New Mexico and Representatives Edward Roybal of California and Herman Badillo of New York attend the Unity Conference in October 1971.
In June 1971, Representative Badillo announced that a number of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American activists met to discuss “the formation of a Chicano-Boricua coalition or alliance … to demand specific legislation and programs aimed at meeting the needs of the Spanish-speaking community.”25 In September 1971, four Hispanic Members of the 92nd Congress—Representatives Badillo, Roybal, and Luján and Senator Montoya—agreed to sponsor a national conference to bring together Southwestern Mexican-American and Northeastern Puerto Rican civil rights groups and to reach out to the growing Cuban-American community in South Florida.26 Badillo and Roybal served as co-chairmen, and Montoya was the keynote speaker. The National Spanish-Speaking Coalition Conference, under the banner Unidos (Unity), took place in Arlington, Virginia, on October 23 and 24, 1971.27
Chicano Movement/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_09_brown_power_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Hispanic activists pushed mainstream civil rights groups and elected officials to pursue economic and social reforms with greater vigor. Here, young Chicano movement members display protest signs in 1970.
Roybal described one of his primary goals, “We want to set up an organization with political muscle … [because] Spanish-speaking people have been shortchanged by the federal government for too long.” Both chairs “hoped the conference would develop solutions to problems … such as job discrimination in both public and private employment, bilingual education, economic development, housing and community action programs.” Not all Hispanic Americans in Congress agreed that working together to further Hispanic-American political concerns was the best course, however. Representatives González and de la Garza disassociated themselves from the conference, attracting widespread media attention. González was concerned that the conference might lead to the “creation of an isolated position.… 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,” he said.28 In the end, the coalition erected political platforms and legal strategies to combat discrimination by filing a lawsuit against four federal agencies and calling for an investigation by the Justice Department of police brutality against Hispanic Americans.29 The conferees also agreed to create a national political action campaign to promote legislation and monitor law enforcement.30

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11Herman Badillo was initially assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, but lobbied for, and got a spot on the Education and Labor Committee with the support of the Democratic Study Group and Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma.

12Ralph Nader Congress Project, Citizens Look at Congress: Jorge L. Córdova, Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico (Washington, D.C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972). Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz caucused with the Republican Party during the second half of his term of service in the House.

13William R. Tansill, “The Resident Commissioner to the United States from Puerto Rico: An Historical Perspective,” Revista juridica de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 47, nos. 1–2 (1978): 83.

14Congressional Record, House, 88th Cong., 2nd sess. (1 October 1964): 23426.

15Congressional Record, Senate, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (7 August 1972): 27010. Interestingly, Montoya does not list Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz, the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner, or Ron de Lugo, the Delegate for the Virgin Islands, who were nonvoting Members of the House.

16Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Chicano Politics, Reality and Promise, 1940–1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990): 94–95.

17Maldonado, Luis Muñoz Marín: Puerto Rico’s Democratic Revolution: 259–260; Surendra Bhana, The United States and the Development of the Puerto Rican Status Question, 1936–1968 (Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1975): 103–104; Congressional Record, House, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess. (28 May 1952): 6169.

18“Candidate’s Stand on Issues,” n.d., 1962 file,” Box 64, Folder 1 (MSS 386 BC), Joseph M. Montoya Papers, University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research, Albuquerque (hereinafter referred to as Montoya Papers, CSWR).

19Congressional Record, Senate, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (18 December 1969): 39945.

20Congressional Record, House, 91st Cong., 1st sess. (16 December 1969): 39400–39401.

21Congressional Record, Index, 91st Cong.: 1579; “An Act to Establish the Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-Speaking People, and for Other Purposes,” P.L. 91-181, 83 Stat. 838, 1969–1970.

22Ralph Nader Congress Project, Citizens Look at Congress: Manuel Luján, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972): 8.

23Politics in America, 1982 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1981): 791; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”

24See, for example, Badillo’s stance on unemployment, Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1972): 6689–6690.

25Congressional Record, House, Extension of Remarks, 92nd Cong, 1st sess. (4 June 1971): 18267.

26“Latin Parley Is Called by Four from Congress,” 26 September 1971, New York Times: 77.

27Will Lissner, “Coalition Sought by Puerto Ricans,” 30 September 1971, New York Times: 43; Jack Rosenthal, “U.S. Latins Vote Political Drive,” 25 October 1971, New York Times: 17.

28Thomas J. Foley, “‘Brown Power’ Parley Opens This Weekend,” 22 October 1971, Los Angeles Times: A18.

29Jack Rosenthal, “Latin Americans Sue U.S. on Rights,” 23 October 1971, New York Times: 31; “Hispanic-Americans Complain about Frequent Police Abuses,” 24 October 1971, Chicago Tribune: A22.

30Rosenthal, “U.S. Latins Vote Political Drive.”