Strength in Numbers, Challenges in Diversity: Legislative Trends and Power Sharing Among Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1977–2012

Solidarity March 1981/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_01_protester_lc_cropped.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress At the 1981 Solidarity March in Washington, D.C., a migrant farm worker holds a sign in Spanish that reads, in part, “Do not snuff out the dreams of Hispanics!” Immigration reform remained a central, often controversial, national issue.
When Congress debated new immigration legislation in 2006, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida was much in demand. If he was not speaking before an audience, Martinez was cornering his colleagues in the Capitol or talking to congressional staffers who were concerned about how the bill would affect them. “Hearing it from the guy behind the counter, they know the names of the bills, it’s what everyone is talking about in the Hispanic community,” he told a Miami reporter.1

The first Cuban American to serve in the U.S. Senate, Martinez immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. Part of a generation of Hispanic Americans that changed U.S. society and Congress’s legislative focus, Martinez and many of his Hispanic colleagues during this period were immigrants or the children of immigrants, and their congressional ambitions were shaped by their stories and their families’ stories. Martinez’s policy preferences were informed by his childhood and by the experiences and observations of other Hispanic Members.2

Since their constituents frequently struggled with English and with discrimination, these issues became central to Hispanic Members’ agendas. Other issues included the United States’ relationship with Cuba and the federal government’s relationship with its territories. But perhaps the most important topic of debate during the latter part of the 20th century was immigration. “There are those in the country who feel the country is ‘full,’” Martinez observed in 2006. “Had that been the prevailing view in the 1960s, I would not be here.”3

The Hispanic Americans who entered Congress between 1977 and 2012 represent the greatest increase in their ethnic group in congressional history. Of the 91 Hispanic Americans who served in Congress through August 2012, 37 were elected or appointed between 1822 and 1976, meaning that nearly 60 percent of the Hispanic Americans in congressional history (54 individuals) were elected in 1976 or later.

This increase was prompted by demographic changes and political reforms. Between the 1980 Census and 2010 Census, the number of Latinos in the United States nearly tripled, to 16 percent of the total population, making Hispanics the second largest ethnic group in the country.4 Hispanic representation in Congress has also increased because of two major reforms to America’s electoral system: the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its extensions, and a series of Supreme Court decisions on redistricting that began in 1962.5

Hispanics’ substantial presence in U.S. society did not translate immediately into a degree of comparative congressional representation.6 Hispanic-American representation in Congress did not change proportionally from 1977 to 2012, despite the burgeoning ratio of Latinos in the U.S. population. In 1981 there were nine Hispanic Americans in Congress while Latinos constituted slightly more than 6 percent of the U.S. population. Thus, there was one Hispanic American in Congress for every 1.62 million Hispanics. Thirty years later that ratio remained unchanged—there were 31 Hispanic Americans in Congress, while Hispanic Americans made up 16 percent of the U.S. population.7

Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1980/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_02_chc3_na.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus meet, circa 1980s. From left to right: Solomon Ortiz of Texas; Robert Garcia of New York; Bill Richardson of New Mexico (standing); Albert Bustamante of Texas; Esteban Torres of California; and Matthew Martínez of California.

Nevertheless, Hispanics’ rapid population growth has transformed their profile in a number of states. For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, Latinos were from the Southwest. But recent census data indicate that Hispanic Americans are settling in all the major urban areas in the country.8 After reapportionment based on the 2010 Census, eight states gained House seats. The proportion of Hispanics in these growing states ranged from 37.6 percent (Texas) to 5.1 percent (South Carolina), with Hispanic growth rates ranging from 147.9 percent (South Carolina) to 41.8 percent (Texas). The 2010 Census also identified 10 states that lost House seats.9 In these states, the Hispanic population ranges from 17.7 percent (New Jersey) to 3.1 percent (Ohio) with growth rates ranging from 83.7 percent (Iowa) to 19.2 percent (New York). In each one of these states, whether its population is growing or declining, the growth rate for Hispanics outstrips the growth rate for the general population, increasing the proportion of Hispanics in the total U.S. population.10 This demographic trend has attracted the attention of both major political parties, which seek to win the loyalty of Hispanic voters.

Mel Martinez of California/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_03_martinez_mel_hud.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez addresses the League of United Latin American Citizens convention in Orlando, Florida. In 2004, Martinez won election to the U.S. Senate as the first Cuban American to serve in that body.
As their numbers grew, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives, Hispanic Americans in Congress were better positioned to influence the legislative process, both as individuals and as a bloc.11 After the 1976 elections, for instance, five Members established the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a legislative service organization that followed and influenced policy affecting America’s Hispanic community. Unlike in other congressional caucuses, however, the diversity of the Hispanic Caucus limited its effectiveness. The caucus was open to both Republicans and Democrats, and its roster included Members from across the country. Competing regional interests often made the caucus an information clearinghouse and a communications network more than a vehicle for moving legislation through Congress.12

Hispanic Members during this period benefited from the privileges that were won by their predecessors. In congressional committees, these Members gained enough seniority to chair 11 committees and 16 subcommittees. A handful of Hispanic Members won spots in the leadership, where they helped make committee assignments, and track votes. Experience and exposure at many levels of American politics has made recent Hispanic-American Members attractive candidates for Cabinet-level posts and leadership positions at federal agencies. Senator Martinez’s work as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the George W. Bush administration prior to his Senate service and his role as head of the Republican National Committee during his Senate tenure, exemplified Latinos’ increasing participation in American politics by the early 21st century.

Next Section


1Lesley Clark, “Senator Martinez Seeking Immigration Solution,” 30 March 2006, Miami Herald: 5; see also, Libby Copeland, “Risky Political Waters,” 8 April 2006, Washington Post: C1. William E. Gibson, “Immigrants Rally behind Senate Bill,” 2 April 2006, South Florida Sun-Sentinel: n.p.

2Martinez spoke often on the Senate Floor about immigration reform. See, for example, Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 March 2006): S2519–S2520; Congressional Record, Senate, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 April 2006): S3371–S3372.

3Clark, “Senator Martinez Seeking Immigration Solution.”

4Sharon R. Ennis, Merarys Ríos-Vargas, and Nora G. Albert, “The Hispanic Population: 2010,” (accessed 22 August 2012): 2.

5J. W. Peltason, “Reapportionment Cases,” in Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 826–827.

6The foregoing figures are best understood within a three-tiered framework. First, there is the overall Hispanic population in the U.S., which these numbers reflect. But these numbers can be misleading. For instance, the population of Hispanic citizens is smaller when undocumented individuals and permanent residents are discounted. Moreover, electorally active individuals comprise an even smaller segment of the overall Hispanic population in the U.S. Also, Hispanics historically have had low voting rates and this varies by both region and group; Puerto Ricans, for example, have relatively low electoral participation rates. For more on this topic see two reports by the Pew Research Center, Mark H. Lopez, ed., “The Latino Electorate in 2010: More Voters, More Non-Voters,” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2011): 4–6 ; and Roberto Suro, Richard Fry, and Jeffrey Passel, “Hispanics and the 2004 Election: Population, Electorate, and Voters,” (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2005): 1–5.

7Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 112th Congress: A Profile,” 15 August 2012, Rep. R41647, Congressional Research Service (hereinafter referred to as CRS), Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Ennis et al., “The Hispanic Population: 2010”: 2. As indicated in the previous footnote, these averages include all Hispanic individuals in the U.S., including the undocumented, permanent residents, and electorally inactive.

8Ennis et al., “The Hispanic Population: 2010”: 2.

9States that gained seats were Arizona (1), Florida (2), Georgia (1), Nevada (1), South Carolina (1), Texas (4), Utah (1), and Washington (1). States that lost seats were Illinois (1), Iowa (1), Louisiana (1), Massachusetts (1), Michigan (1), Missouri (1), New York (2), Ohio (2), and Pennsylvania (1). Kristin D. Burnett, “Congressional Apportionment,” prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-08.pdf (accessed 23 August 2012): 3.

10Ennis et al., “The Hispanic Population: 2010”: 6. The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) has recently reported that registration growth rates have fallen in states with large Hispanic populations such as Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas. See “Hispanic Voter Registration Could Hit 20-Year Low,”, (accessed 23 July 2012).

11Similar trends have been observed with regard to women and African Americans in Congress. See, for example, Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, “Assembling, Amplifying, and Ascending,” in Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2007): 542–563; Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, “Permanent Interests,” in Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2008): 368–415.

12For more information about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, see Paul R. Wieck, “Different Interests, Personalities Hurt Unity of Hispanic Caucus,” in F. Chris Garcia, ed., Latinos and the Political System (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988): 300–305; Maurilio E. Vigil, “The Congressional Hispanic Caucus: Illusions and Realities of Power,” Journal of Hispanic Policy 4 (1989–1990): 19–30; Maurilio Vigil, Hispanics in Congress: A Historical and Political Survey (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1996): 88–97; John A. Garcia, “Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” in Suzanne Oboler and Deena J. González, eds., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States, vol. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 396–398.