Creating a month to honor Latinos was a lesson in Congress
For one Mexican American congressional intern, finding support for a bill to create National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988 was a surprising challenge.
By Robert J. Lopez
The assignment seemed perfect for me.
I was a Mexican American college student in Washington and was asked to get cosponsors for a bill that would create a month-long observance honoring the achievements of Latinos — National Hispanic Heritage Month.
I had already spent five months as an intern for Democrat Jaime B. Fuster, Puerto Rico’s delegate to Congress. Through connections, I lined up a second internship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
It was May 1988 and an exciting time to be in Washington. There were emotional debates over economic sanctions targeting apartheid in South Africa. The town was abuzz over the upcoming presidential race that would likely pit Vice President George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis, the Democratic governor of Massachusetts.
The bill that I was asked to work on was officially titled H.R. 3182. It would amend a 1968 federal law that established National Hispanic Heritage Week and change it to Hispanic Heritage Month. The commemoration period, which would start Sept. 15, included the independence anniversaries of Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Chile, as well as Columbus Day, or Dia de la Raza, as it’s known in Latin America.
A related bill already had passed the Senate, and though all 13 Latino members of Congress were in the House, getting enough supporters was far from a slam dunk. Getting the bill passed would undoubtedly encounter resistance, though I had no idea how much.
Bettie Baca, the executive director of the caucus, told me the House version had been sponsored by Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera) and been introduced in August 1987 — more than six months before the Senate bill. But it stalled in two subcommittees. It had slightly more than 100 cosponsors, but no one had touched it in nearly six months.
I actually didn’t know much about the accomplishments of Latinos. I grew up in Azusa, which has a large Mexican American population, but there were never any classes about Latino history.
Still, I had a job to do. If we could get 50 more representatives to sign on, the bill would be moved to the floor for a vote.
No problem, I thought. How hard could it be to call congressional aides and ask them to get their bosses on board?
I soon found out.
“Some people said, ‘We’re all Americans. We shouldn’t be celebrating these ethnic holidays,’” Torres recalled recently.
Similar sentiments were expressed as soon as I began cold-calling offices. We need our constituents to ask us to cosponsor the bill, several legislative assistants told me. Another aide said his boss was concerned about supporting “frivolous legislation.”
I decided that I needed to target liberal representatives, figuring they would be more likely to jump on board. They did.
Next, I tried the Congressional Black Caucus. Ron Dellums of Oakland and Augustus Hawkins of Los Angeles had cosponsored the proposal when it was introduced.
“Dellums and Hawkins have signed on,” I told aides to black Congress members. The signatures kept coming in. I also enlisted some Republicans, including Reps. Dan Burton of Indiana and Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley.
I finally could see daylight. I felt a surge of pride in being Latino. Over drinks after work, I strategized with friends who worked on the Hill.
From those sessions and from talks with Baca, a final plan emerged: Concentrate on getting members from California, New York and Texas, states with large Latino populations.
I would write “Dear Colleague” letters, which would be signed by caucus members from those states. I turned to the Congressional Research Service to prepare reports on Latino achievements.
I learned about such notable figures as Bernardo de Galvez, a military officer who aided American colonists in their fight against the British during the Revolutionary War. Then there was Luis Alvarez, who was born in San Francisco and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968.
I was armed with compelling information for my letters. By the end of June, I had 67 additional signatures.
It was a muggy Aug. 8 when I walked to the House gallery, where I planned to watch the vote on the bill. In a quick voice vote, H.R. 3182 was passed. It was sent to President Reagan, who signed it into law nine days later at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
I recently spoke to Torres about that time in Washington 25 years ago. Now 83, he joked that his back wasn’t as strong as before and that he wouldn’t be walking precincts anytime soon. His voice was softer, not quite as strong as it used to be.
At the end of our talk, he had a question for me: “Did you learn anything from that experience?”
“You bet,” I said.
Every year when Sept. 15 rolls around, I smile to myself.