Background and Precongressional Experience

Ken Salazar of Colorado/tiles/non-collection/p/part4_04_salazar_ken_interior.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior Ken Salazar of Colorado served in the U.S. Senate from 2005 to 2009. Salazar resigned his Senate seat in 2009 to become Secretary of the Interior in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
From Congress’s origins, its Members have tended to be better educated and wealthier than other Americans.13 This pattern is evident in the Hispanic Americans elected to Congress after 1976.14

The occupations of this generation of Hispanic Members are heavily skewed toward the legal profession. Nearly 40 percent of this group, including all seven Puerto Rican Resident Commissioners who served during this era, practiced law or had studied law. This is consistent with the general characteristics of recent Congresses, in which law has been among the most frequently reported occupations. The 15 percent of Hispanic Members who worked in education, however, is twice as high as the percentage in Congress generally, and while the number of those engaged in business or banking pursuits hovered around 20 percent of the membership in recent Congresses, only 6 percent of Hispanics reported having such an occupation.15

Consistent with earlier congressional trends, Hispanic Members arrived in Washington with more political experience than did previous generations. Half this group cited service in state or territorial legislatures before their arrival on Capitol Hill—the same percentage for all Members of Congress found in surveys conducted since 1987.16 Seventy-one percent of Hispanic Members had prior political or public service, and many of these Members held prestigious positions before they arrived in Congress or after they left. Resident Commissioner Carlos Romero-Barceló served as governor of Puerto Rico before coming to Capitol Hill, and Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá and Luis G. Fortuño served as governors of Puerto Rico after their tenure in Washington. Two Hispanic Members of Congress were appointed to serve in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet starting in 2009: Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, as Secretary of the Interior, and Representative Hilda Solis of California, as Secretary of Labor.

Hispanic Members’ experience meant they were slightly older than their colleagues. Notably, this development occurred at a time when Congress was aging. Contemporary Hispanic Members (1977–2012) were, on average, 56.41 years old when they arrived in Washington. The Congressional Research Service reports that the average age of all Members increased from 48.9 in 1981 to 56.65 in 2011.17

Family Connections, Gender, and Ethnic Roots

As in previous generations of Hispanic Members, politics in this generation was a family business. Three sets of siblings—the most common familial connection—served together during this period.18 Representative Loretta Sanchez won election to a Southern California district in 1996. Her younger sister, Linda Sánchez, won a seat from a nearby district in 2002, making them the first pair of sisters to serve in Congress.19 Brothers Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart served neighboring districts in South Florida between Mario’s election in 2002 and Lincoln’s departure from Congress in 2011. Colorado Senator Ken Salazar and Representative John Salazar were simultaneously elected to their respective chambers in 2004 and the brothers eventually shared a two-bedroom Washington apartment upon their election. Entering his congressional race four months after Ken announced his campaign for the Senate, older brother John joked, “He wore my hand-me-downs. I guess I can wear his.”20 Representative Edward Roybal of California and his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard, also of California, became the first Hispanic father-daughter pair to serve in Congress after she won election to represent part of his old district in 1992.

Increasing Diversity of Hispanic Members

In 1985, Tony Coelho of California became the first person of Portuguese descent to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus./tiles/non-collection/p/part4_05_coelho_anthony_na1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1985, Tony Coelho of California became the first person of Portuguese descent to join the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The contemporary period also illustrates the geographical and gender diversity that began to characterize Hispanic Members of Congress. The expansion of territorial representation added Hispanics from the Virgin Islands with Territorial Delegate Ron de Lugo’s election in 1972, followed by Ben Blaz and Robert Underwood from Guam and Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan from the Northern Mariana Islands. Another example of this growing heterogeneity was Tony Coelho of California. Not long after his election in 1978, Coelho, who was of Portuguese descent, had been denied membership by the Hispanic Caucus reportedly because he was not considered Hispanic. But in 1985, he campaigned again and won admission to the caucus with the help of members such as Representative Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

The social changes of the 1970s opened the door for women Members. Up to this point all Hispanic Americans in Congress had been male and tended to be of Mexican or Puerto Rican ancestry. The election of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who succeeded Claude Pepper of Florida in 1989, marked two milestones: Ros-Lehtinen, who had been born in Cuba and had served in the Florida legislature for much of the 1980s, became the first Hispanic woman to serve in Congress, and the first Cuban American in Congress. Another seven women and seven Cuban Americans would follow her through 2012. Robert Menendez of New Jersey became the first Cuban American who was elected to Congress from outside the state of Florida when he entered the House in 1993. In 2006 he was appointed to the Senate, where he joined Cuban-American Senator Mel Martinez.

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13See, for example, Allan Bogue et al., “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302.

14For instance, 87 percent of the Latino Members of Congress in this period hold bachelor’s degrees; another 8 percent attended college. More than a quarter also hold advanced degrees (doctorate, 28 percent; and masters, 26 percent).

15R. Eric Petersen, “Representatives and Senators: Trends in Member Characteristics since 1945,” 17 February 2012, Rept. R42365, CRS: 8–11.

16Congressional statistics are from CRS Membership Profiles of the 100th–112th Congresses (1987–2012).

17Petersen, “Representatives and Senators: Trends in Member Characteristics since 1945”: 4.

18More than 300 pairs of siblings have served in Congress. Since 1990, eight pairs have served in the House or in the House and the Senate, six of them simultaneously. See Biographical Directory of the United States Congress,

19See, for example, Roxanne Roberts, “House Mates: Loretta and Linda Sanchez Are Congress’s First Sister Act,” 12 December 2002, Washington Post: C1.

20Valerie Richardson, “Colorado Brothers Set Sights on Hill,” 30 August 2004, Washington Times: A2; Judith Kohler, “Brothers Elected to Congress Head to D.C.,” 26 December 2004, Associated Press; Mark Leibovich, “Cramming Two Houses into One Apartment: Rep. John and Sen. Ken Salazar Hold Joint Session in Kitchen,” 5 January 2005, Washington Post: C1; Eddie Pells, “‘Colorado Kennedys’ Going to Washington Together,” 3 November 2004, Associated Press.