Precongressional Experience

Family/Ethnic Roots

Eligio (Kika) de la Garza of Texas/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_04_de-la-garza_kika_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Eligio (Kika) de la Garza of Texas, first elected to the House in 1964, served 32 years and was the longtime chairman of the Agriculture Committee.
Like their predecessors, the Hispanic Members of this era frequently hailed from politically connected families. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez was born into a literary family; his ancestors included several famous 19th-century poets. Texas Representative Eligio (Kika) de la Garza II, descended from a Spanish land grant family, traced his roots to Southern Texas as far back as the 18th century. Ron de Lugo, the Virgin Islands’ first Delegate to Congress, was descended from the original Spanish settlers in the Caribbean; his grandfather emigrated from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands in 1879. New York’s Herman Badillo became the first Puerto Rican-born U.S. Representative, having migrated to New York City with his guardian in 1941, like thousands of others who left the island to seek economic opportunities on the mainland. Four other Hispanic Members also followed their parents into political service. Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz spent his youth learning English and observing the congressional tenure of his father, Resident Commissioner Félix Córdova Dávila, in the 1920s. New Mexican Senator Joseph Montoya’s father was sheriff of Sandoval County in the late 1920s; Texas Representative Henry González’s father served as mayor of Mapimi, Mexico; and New Mexico Representative Manuel Luján, Jr.’s father served six years as mayor of Santa Fe, New Mexico, before running for a seat in the U.S. House and the governorship of New Mexico in the 1940s.

Age Relative to the Rest of the Congressional Population

Whereas Members of Congress were typically younger in this era, Hispanic-American Representatives, Senators, and Resident Commissioners as a whole were older than their congressional contemporaries and, on average, older when they were first elected (about 47.4 years old) than were past generations of Hispanic-American Members.7 The youngest Member during this era was Kika de la Garza, who was sworn in at age 37 on January 4, 1965. The oldest was Resident Commissioner Jaime Benítez, who was 64 on his first day in office, January 3, 1973.

The advanced median age of the Hispanic-American Members of this generation was a byproduct of their long political service before their election to Congress. Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners, especially, rose to prominence with their contemporary Luis Muñoz Marín, who was also born in the late 19th century, and with his dominant Partido Popular Democrático (Popular Democratic Party, or PPD), which was formed in 1938. All the Resident Commissioners from this period except Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz were allied initially with the powerful Muñoz Marín, whose political career started in the 1920s and spanned more than 40 years. The youngest Resident Commissioner, Santiago Polanco-Abreu, who was 44 when he took office in 1965, represented the next generation of PPD politicians who were groomed under Muñoz Marín.8

Education, Professions, and Prior Political Experience

Edward Roybal of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part3_05_roybal_edward_pc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Edward Roybal of California was elected in 1949 to the Los Angeles City Council—the first Hispanic American to serve in that post in the twentieth century. Elected to the U.S. House in 1962, Roybal served 30 years, chaired an Appropriations subcommittee, and cofounded the Hispanic Caucus.

All but one Hispanic-American Member in this era had held a political office at the local or state level, and some attained powerful positions in their municipalities.9 Joseph Montoya was one of the youngest members of the New Mexico state house of representatives in 1936 (at age 21). He eventually served as majority leader before serving a single term in the state senate and then three years as lieutenant governor. Resident Commissioner Santiago Polanco-Abreu entered the insular house of representatives almost immediately after college in 1947 and eventually served as speaker in 1963. Henry González served in the San Antonio city council and the Texas state senate before making a long-shot bid for Texas governor in 1958. California Representative Edward Roybal was the first Hispanic to be elected to the Los Angeles city council since the early 1880s and served in that body from 1949 to 1963. Herman Badillo worked his way up through the Democratic Party in local clubs and campaigns in East Harlem, becoming Bronx borough president in 1965 and running unsuccessfully for New York City mayor in 1973 and 1977.

Another commonality among postwar Hispanic Members was higher education; with the exception of Ron de Lugo, who served in the U.S. Army, all these Members pursued some form of higher education. Eight of the 12 pursued graduate degrees, and consistent with the general congressional trend, all but two were lawyers.10

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Footnotes

7Overall, Hispanic-American Representatives were about the same age as their congressional counterparts (43.4 years), but the average age of the Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners when they were first elected was considerably older (55.8 years). See Allan G. Bogue et al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63, no. 2 (September 1976): 291 (see especially Table 6). This figure includes Joseph Montoya of New Mexico, who served in the House from 1957 to 1964 and in the Senate from 1964 to 1976.

8Córdova-Díaz was not a member of the PPD; he was a member of the Partido Acción Cristiana (Christian Action Party) and the Partido Nuevo Progresista (New Progressive Party).

9Jorge Luis Córdova-Díaz was appointed to serve on the bench of the supreme court of Puerto Rico. He did not serve as a legislator until he was elected Resident Commissioner in 1968.

10From 1940 to 1950, 50.7 percent of House Members were lawyers; from 1950 to 1960, 52 percent practiced law. See Bogue et al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960”: 284 (especially Table 2). It is unclear whether Ron de Lugo attended college.