Separate Interests to National Agendas: Hispanic-American Members of Congress in the Civil Rights Era, 1945–1977

Henry B. González of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_01_gonzalez_henry_portrait.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Henry B. González of Texas is the longest-serving Hispanic American in congressional history. With years of experience as a civil rights proponent in San Antonio and Texas politics, González won a seat in the U.S. House in 1961 in a special election. He went on to serve more than 37 years, helped found the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and became the chairman of the influential House Banking Committee.
In June 1952 two long-running but often dissimilar paths of Hispanic-American congressional history converged, if only for a moment. At issue was the transformation of Puerto Rico from a colonial territory to a U.S. commonwealth. Under Puerto Rico’s proposed constitution, the island’s new government, the Estado Libre Asociado (Free Associated State or ELA), would be linked to the U.S. mainland by matters involving foreign affairs, but its authority to govern locally would be enhanced. Congress initially approved the concept, but quickly split over a constitutional human rights provision that had wide support among the Puerto Rican people.

In the U.S. Senate, one faction sought to establish Congress’s ability to approve or reject amendments to the island’s constitution, essentially stripping Puerto Ricans of sovereignty.1 One such advocate bluntly argued that Congress essentially had the option to “give them a constitution or not give it to them.” Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, on the other hand—often that chamber’s lone proponent for boosting Hispanic civil rights—pushed back: “The Puerto Ricans did not ask us to take [their political rights]; we took them,” he said. In areas of the world where the U.S. was then working to contain the spread of communism, including in the Caribbean Basin, Chavez noted that America’s efforts would be aided by treating Puerto Ricans with more equanimity.2 Chavez’s intervention in the debate foreshadowed an important trend in this era—the increasing cooperation among advocates for Hispanic issues on a national scale. In this instance, the amendment giving Congress the right to void amendments to the island’s constitution was stripped from the final legislation; likewise the language regarding human rights was removed from the constitution.3

This era in the history of Hispanic Americans in Congress is best narrated from two perspectives. The first involves Mexican-American strides toward civil rights reforms in the mainland United States, which were enabled by Chavez and other Hispanic Congressmen; the second, Puerto Rico’s evolution from territory to commonwealth, made possible by a long line of reform-minded Resident Commissioners like Fernós-Isern. Widely divergent at the beginning of this period, these perspectives became inextricably intertwined by its end: Local agendas became state agendas, state policy interests became regional agendas, and regional agendas became national agendas. The policy interests of Hispanic Americans from diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds became increasingly similar, as well. The creation of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the close of this era consolidated these agendas, lending them additional strength.

In the 30 years after World War II, Hispanic Americans living in the Southwest and Puerto Rico experienced remarkable changes that redefined their elected representatives’ legislative careers. Prior to the global conflict, Mexican Americans in the Southwest lived in segregated communities with limited opportunities for social or political advancement. As occurred during the disfranchisement of African Americans in the South, local and state governments erected roadblocks such as poll taxes and English literacy tests to restrict Hispanics’ electoral participation and moved polling places beyond the reach of their segregated communities.4 During the 1930s and 1940s, a small number of politically active middle-class Hispanics formed local organizations that challenged segregation in the courts and in their communities. During World War II, the industrial mobilization of the United States increased employment opportunities and enabled more Hispanic Americans to enlist in the military. The war also led Hispanic-American activists and Members of Congress to press for civil rights.

Union Poster/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_02_boycott_poster_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This union poster urges consumers to boycott buying lettuce and grapes to support efforts to improve working conditions for migrant farmworkers.

Rapid grass-roots organizing, often occurring simultaneously throughout the country, nationalized Mexican-American political issues during the 1940s and 1950s as civil rights organizations fought segregation, enabling future Members of Congress to parlay local activism into statewide and nationwide careers. By the early 1960s, some prominent Hispanic civil rights organizations had begun mobilizing into regional and national associations, not only to promote their social agendas but also to register new voters and propel Mexican-American politicians into local, state, and federal offices. At the same time, working-class activists formed grass-roots organizations that promoted Hispanic-American issues and inspired the Chicano movement, which emphasized a positive self-image for Hispanics in the face of discrimination. By the late 1960s, dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party and uneven progress toward achieving social and political equality had emboldened college-bound and working-class Hispanics to embrace more-activist tactics, to hold their elected representatives accountable through protests, and to form third parties such as La Raza Unida, a movement that conveyed ethnic pride while enabling local activists to initiate social and political change.5  

Political Cartoon, Puerto Rico/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_03_pr_chains_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress A political cartoon from the early twentieth century depicts Puerto Rico in shackles, an allusion to U.S. tariff rates that hurt sugar and tobacco producers on the island. The issue of more equitable agricultural tariff rates was a consistent one.
Puerto Ricans had a different experience. Before World War II, islanders elected their representatives in the insular house and senate, but they could not elect their own governor. Moreover, any decisions made by Puerto Rico’s legislature could be nullified or modified by the executive council, a board of non-Puerto Ricans selected by the U.S. President. From its inception in 1917, Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners had worked to mitigate the effects of the Jones Act and gain more autonomy (and federal resources) for the island. However, after the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) in 1952, the role of Resident Commissioners had changed from advocating for greater autonomy to that of a “cost-plus lobbyist” who appealed to Democrats and Republicans for resources in a nonconfrontational manner, according to a political observer.6 For much of this period, Resident Commissioners debated the role and function of the office. Even as Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners acquired more institutional privileges after the passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, their overall power and influence in Washington and Puerto Rico decreased because of the passage of the Elective Governor Act of 1948 and the institution of commonwealth status in 1952. Eventually, Mexican-American activists in the Southwest and Puerto Rican activists in the Caribbean and the Northeast, increasingly unified by the civil rights movement and the Chicano movement, began to combine their resources. By the early 1970s, as Resident Commissioners gained influence in the House, the Hispanic-American Members of Congress, who once worked separately, began working together to improve the welfare of Hispanic Americans across the United States, and in 1976 they formed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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1Congressional Record, Senate, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess. (23 June 1952): 7842, 7846; A. W. Maldonado, Luis Muñoz Marín: Puerto Rico’s Democratic Revolution (San Juan: La Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2006): 318–319, 322.

2Congressional Record, Senate, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess. (23 June 1952): 7846.

3Quoted in Maldonado, Luis Muñoz Marín: Puerto Rico’s Democratic Revolution: 321–322; David M. Helfeld, “Congressional Intent and Attitude toward Public Law 600 and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” Revista juridicia de la Universidad de Puerto Rico 21, no. 4 (May–June 1952): 299, 302; Congressional Record, Senate, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess. (23 June 1952): 7841, 7846. Chavez was reacting to remarks by Senator Olin Johnston of South Carolina who said, “We have received nothing from Puerto Rico in return for all we have given them, all the millions of dollars that we have spent in Puerto Rico. We have asked for nothing in return in the form of taxes or anything else.… In relation to the Constitution of Puerto Rico I can say that we can give them a constitution or not give it to them: I want the Puerto Ricans to know this.”

4Rodolfo Espino III, “Political Representation,” in Suzanne Oboler and Deena J. González, eds., The Oxford History of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 424–431.

5Ignacio García, “La Raza Unida Party,” in Oboler and González, eds., The Oxford History of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 2: 473–475.

6Walter S. Priest, “What Lies Ahead for Polanco?” 15 November 1964, San Juan Star: 3.