Hispanics in Government

Houston Institute for Culture 
By John P. Schmal

Dedication: This work is dedicated to the Tejanos who fought and died alongside their Anglo brothers in the great struggle against tyranny during World War II (1941-1945).

Special Acknowledgements: to Steve Bickerstaff of the University of Texas School of Law and Kathryn Woosterhausen of the Texas Legislative Library for their advice and contributions. Special thanks also goes to Eligio (Kika) de la Garza.
The state of Texas has an intriguing and diverse history stretching back hundreds of years. For more than two centuries, Texas was part of Spain's vast American empire. When Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821, Texas became part of Mexico. Less than two decades later, Anglo and Mexicano Tejano residents of Texas engineered a rebellion against Mexican rule, which would lead -- in 1836 -- to the establishment of an independent Republic. Nine years later, Texas became part of the United States.

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For the first few decades, some Tejanos shared the reigns of power with the Anglos in Texas. Gradually, as their percent of the population declined, Mexican-American representation nearly vanished from the Texas Legislature. And, by the end of the Nineteenth Century, only one Tejano representative was seated in the Texas House of the Representatives.

Thomas A. Rodriguez (1839-1903) was a native of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas who had served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Politically active in San Antonio for a period of time, Rodriguez would eventually serve three terms as the Representative for parts of Atascosa, Karnes, and San Patricio Counties. With the end of Representative Rodriguez's term of office, the political representation of Tejanos outside of Cameron County effectively ended for several decades.

The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1870, promised "the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In theory this amendment gave Mexican-American Tejanos reassurances that their voice would be heard in both local and national politics. In practice, however, the Amendment was flagrantly violated for the next few decades.

The Poll Tax (1902)

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, the influx of immigrants from Mexico continued to steadily increase, as the need for cheap labor in the commercial agriculture industries of Texas grew. The resulting increase in the Hispanic population of Texas, however, did not lead to increased political representation. One obstacle to Latino participation in Texas during this time was the poll tax amendment. Six attempts to pass poll tax legislation had failed between 1879 and 1899, but in 1901, the Texas Legislature finally passed the poll tax, requiring voters to pay $1.75 at the voting booth. Such an expense was effective in keeping poor Latinos from participating in the electoral process. In November 1902, Texas voters ratified the poll tax by a two-to-one margin.

José T. Canales and Augustine Celaya

Early in the Twentieth Century, the millionaire José Tomas Canales of Brownsville would serve five terms in the Texas House of Representatives (1905-1910, 1917-1920). Representative Canales was a native of Nueces County and a lawyer by trade. Through his mother, José was descended from José Salvador de la Garza, the owner of a large Spanish land grant that occupied a large portion of Cameron County. With the support of the Cameron County Democratic machine under the control of James B. Wells, Jr., he served from 1905 to 1910 in the Texas House of Representatives as a representative for the 95th District (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Zapata counties).

For a time, Canales served as the County Superintendent of public schools in Cameron County. But, in 1917, he returned to the Texas House of Representatives as the delegate of the Seventy-seventh District, which extended through Cameron and Willacy counties, He served in this capacity to 1920 and won fame for defending the rights of Mexican Americans against the abuses of the Texas Rangers. By embracing prohibition and women's suffrage, he had received widespread support from his Anglo constituency.

Over the years José T. Canales was extremely influential in the League of United Latin American Citizens. He addressed its founding meeting in 1929 and took part in writing its first constitution. He also became President of LULAC in 1932-33. Representative Canales died on March 30, 1976 in Brownsville.

In 1933, Augustine F. Celaya became the second Mexican American to run for the Texas House of Representatives in the Twentieth Century. Celaya served as the Representative of the 72nd District (Brownsville, Cameron County) from 1933 to 1949 (the 43rd to 50th Legislatures). The third Hispanic person to serve in the Texas Legislature was John Charles Hoyo, who served the 78th District (San Antonio, Bexar County) from 1941 to 1946 (the 47th to the 49th Legislatures). Hoyo was born in 1891 in Weimar, Texas and had served with the U.S. Navy during World War I. He had become a lawyer and a district court judge in Bexar County before taking office as a legislator in 1941.

Diminished Representation

For the first half of the Twentieth Century, Hispanic representation remained very limited, partly because the Mexican-American population of most counties did not make up a majority of most communities. However, in addition to the poll tax, the primary means of limiting minority representation in Texas and other states was the process of gerrymandering. In many states, legislatures would divide a county or city into oddly shaped representational districts to give political advantage to one group or another in elections.

Gerrymandering resulted in voter dilution, in which the political representation of a political unified minority was diminished or altogether obstructed. As a result, even districts containing a majority of Latinos in some parts of the United States frequently found themselves without proper representation thanks to vote dilution. In Texas, gerrymandering of the Latino vote was manifested in the nature of legislative redistricting and reapportionment.

Apportionment or reapportionment, according to law professor, Steve Bickerstaff, "refer to the result of the process of allocating members of a legislative body among areas or political subdivisions." For example, the U.S. Congress "apportions" Congressional seats among the states. In contrast, however, Professor Bickerstaff points out that districting or redistricting entail "the actual drawing of the boundaries of the election districts from which members of the federal or state legislative bodies will be elected."

Legislative Redistricting

Since 1876, the apportionment of legislative districts had been required by Article III, Section 28 of the Texas Constitution to take place following each federal decennial census. This reapportionment took place on a regular basis up to 1921, when the 37th Legislature redrew district lines based on the 1920 census.

However, the Texas political establishment chose to avoid a redrawing of election districts after the 1930 and 1940 census. So, although the 1930 and 1940 census schedules were available for the purpose of reapportionment and redistricting of voting districts, the powers that be decided to protect the people in power and continued to use the districts that had been drawn in 1921. The 1921 districts, therefore, remained in effect until 1951.

One of the reasons to avoid redistricting had to do with the enormous growth of urban areas in Texas during the 1920 to 1950 period. In 1920, two-thirds of the Texas population of 4,700,000 was still rural. However, from this point, the urban areas experienced a dramatic and sustained increase. From 1940 to 1950, the urban population increased 58.4%, while the number of people in rural areas decreased 11.6%. In the 1940s, 146 out of 254 Texas counties lost population, resulting in great discrepancies among the populations of the various districts (Malcolm Jewell, 1962, p. 121).

Congressional redistricting followed the same course as that of the state legislature. In fact, the last redistricting to determine the number of representatives that Texas would send to the U.S. Congress took place in 1933, using the figures from the 1930 census. But Texas did not redistrict the Congressional Districts for 24 years after that and continued to use the 1930 census even though the 1940 and 1950 census figures were available.

Finally, in 1957, Texas reapportioned its Congressional Districts. By that time, Texas had grown in population enough to receive another representative, but rather than adding another district, the legislature created an "at large" seat. That candidate would be voted on in all twenty-one of the districts. In addition, a 1936 amendment to Article III, Section 26(a) of the Texas Constitution had limited to the number of representatives that one county could have to seven. Only when a county's population reached 700,000 would it get an additional representative. Such practices were blatant violations of the principle of equally populated districts.

As a result of this provision, Texas's four most populous counties combined were awarded one representative for each 81,000 people in 1951, while most other counties were receiving one for each 45,000 to 50,000. Thus, Dallas, Bexar and Harris counties were limited in the growth potential of their representation. Article III, Section 25 of the Texas Constitution also did not permit more than one senator to represent a county. Not until 1962, did the U.S. Supreme Court, in Baker v. Carr, declare that these population inequities denied voters "equal protection of the law" guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution [BAKER v. CARR, 369 U.S. 186 (1962)].

In 1947 the Texas Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment providing for creation of the Legislative Redistricting Board, which would be composed of five high executive officers. The failure of the Legislature to redistrict in 1931 and 1941 had troubled some lawmakers, so the Board was set up to redistrict should the legislature fail to do so during the first regular session after federal census data become available. In 1948, the voters ratified this proposed amendment.

A New Breed

In the devastation and uncertainty of World War II (1939-1945), a new breed of Tejano was created. Fighting alongside their Anglo brothers, hundreds of thousands of young Mexican-Americans had taken part in the battle against the tyranny and oppression of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. With the end of the war, these young Mexican-American veterans came home to a state where their rights as citizens were not always recognized and -- in some cases -- blatantly violated. These proud young veterans, having fought to defend their native land, believed it was time to assert their rights as American citizens.

Former Representative Eligio (Kika) de la Garza, in a telephone interview with the author, explained that World War II changed the dynamics of Latino representation in Texas. Even in Kikašs small hometown of Mission, Texas (Hidalgo County), young Mexican Americans quickly enlisted to do their duty. In Mission alone, some forty to fifty boys volunteered and went off to serve their country. Seven of these young men died in the service of their country. Kikašs maternal uncle, Roberto Villarreal, flew 54 missions as a gunner but died in an air accident upon returning home.

The pride and joy of Mission was Army Sgt. José Lopez, a native son of the town, who saved his entire company from being surrounded by enemy troops in Belgium in 1945. For his service, Lopez won the Medal of Honor. As Kika explains it, the pride of these young men in having defended their native soil was tremendous. And this service was repeated in small towns throughout Texas.

But added to that pride was the reward that survivors were given for their wartime service. It is Kikašs view that the G.I. Bill made it possible for thousands of Tejano veterans to attend college and make a better life for themselves. The G.I. Bill Act of June 22, 1944 -- or the Servicemenšs Readjustment Act [Public Law 346, 78th Congress, Title III, §§500-503, 58 Stat. 284, 291-293 (1944)] -- put higher education within the reach of thousands of Mexican-American veterans.

The Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 [Public Law 550, 82nd Congress, July 16, 1952, Ch. 875, 66 Stat. 663, 38 U.S.C. 997] provided similar privileges to Korean War veterans. Over the next decade, Mexican-American veterans attended local and nationwide colleges and universities to obtain college degrees. In many cases, these vets were the first members of their families to receive a higher education. Armed with the weapon of education, many of these veterans became the Chicano leaders of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1947, the Pan American Progressive Association was founded in order to stress leadership and economic interests among Latinos. The American G.I. Forum, founded March 1948, was organized by returning Mexican American veterans from the war. When a funeral home denied use of its facilities for the wake of a decorated veteran, Felix Z. Longoria, the incident received national coverage and helped the G.I. Forum to consolidate its power base and grow into a national organization.

Stressing their patriotism and service to country, the Forum campaigned to increase electoral participation in the political arena. In 1949 and 1950, they initiated local "pay your poll tax" drives to register Tejano voters. Although they failed in repeated efforts to repeal the tax, a 1955-56 drive in the Rio Grande Valley resulted in the first majority Mexican American electorate in the area.

One of the early pioneers of Hispanic representation in the Texas Legislature was Arnold J. Vale. From 1937 to 1947, Representative Vale had represented the 74th District (Rio Grande City, Starr County). In 1949 he represented the same district for three more sessions from 1949 to 1955.

Š Copyright, by John P. Schmal, All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."