Chavez, Dennis: 1888-1962: Legislator
Dennis Chavez: 1888-1962: Legislator
As the first native-born Hispanic to serve in the U.S. Senate, Dennis Chavez burned with a desire to provide minorities with equal protection under the law. Long before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, and years before Martin Luther King, Jr., had his dream, Dennis Chavez, the gentle liberal, was demanding equality for all. As early as 1944, Chavez sponsored congressional legislation to eliminate racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the workplace. While his bill ultimately failed, his work was a harbinger of the civil rights movement to come, and led to the eventual passage of employee protection guarantees enacted in the 1960s. Born into a poor family and receiving no formal early education, Chavez fought his way up through the political hierarchy and enjoyed 31 successful years in Congress. At the time of his death, he was Washington's fourth most powerful senator, and for many years he was the highest-ranking Hispanic in federal government. Former President Lyndon Johnson paid tribute to Chavez's work on behalf of minorities during memorial services for Chavez following his death in 1962. "He was a man who recognized that there must be champions for the least among us," Johnson said, according to the New York Times.
Self-Educated at Local Library
Dionisio "Dennis" Chavez was born April 8, 1888, in a settlement known as Los Chavez, located in an area of U.S.-Mexican territory that would later become New Mexico. The Chavez family had come to the territory in 1769 after being given a land grant from the King of Spain. Chavez was the third of eight children born into the Roman Catholic family of David and Paz (Sanchez) Chavez. David Chavez worked as a farmer and rancher and took an interest in politics, serving as a local Republican Party chairman and justice of the peace.
In 1895 Chavez's family moved north to Albuquerque. When Chavez entered school, his name was changed from Dionisio to Dennis. In seventh grade Chavez dropped out of school to help support his large family. To earn money, he worked six days a week delivering groceries in a horse-drawn wagon from 6 a.m. until early evening.
After a long day's work, Chavez headed to the Albuquerque library to continue his education on his own. He devoured books, particularly those concerning U.S. history and government. He was intrigued by the country's early statesmen, especially Thomas Jefferson. Specifically, Chavez liked Jefferson's notion that human rights stood above property rights. During this time, as Chavez studied the workings of democracy, he became increasingly troubled by the Republican patronage system that surrounded him. Chavez believed the system forced farmers and laborers into economic and political dependence on landowners and other employers. Chavez was on his way to becoming a "liberal," and he told his father that when he turned 21, he would register with the Democrats.
At a Glance . . .
Born Dionisio Chavez on April 8, 1888, in Los Chavez, NM; died on November 18, 1962, in Washington, DC; married Imelda Espinosa, 1911; three children. Education: Georgetown University, law degree, 1920.
Career: Legislator. Joined city of Albuquerque's engineering department in 1906; worked as clerk for Sen. A. A. Jones, Washington, DC; practiced law in Albuquerque; member of New Mexico House of Representatives, 1923-1924; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, 1930, 1932; appointed U.S. Senator on May 11, 1935, to fill a vacancy; elected to the post in November 1936 and re-elected in 1940, 1946, 1952, and 1958, served until his death; held influential posts as chairman of the Senate Appropriations' Subcommittee on Defense and chairman of the Senate's Public Works Committee.
In 1903, at the age of 15, Chavez made his first "liberal" political statement by refusing to take groceries to strike-breakers during a railroad work stoppage. A few years later, Chavez took a job with Albuquerque's engineering department as a laborer, advancing to assistant city engineer. Chavez's interest in politics continued to grow, and in 1908, he jumped into the fray, campaigning for Democratic hopeful Octaviano Larrazolo, who was running for Congress.
By 1911 statehood was imminent for New Mexico and elections were scheduled to elect a governor. Chavez became a party player and accompanied the Democratic candidate, William McDonald, across the territory during his successful election campaign, serving as McDonald's interpreter. A few days after the election, on November 9, 1911, Chavez married Imelda Espinosa. The couple had three children.
Earned Law Degree
In 1916 Chavez sought his first political office, that of Bernalillo County Clerk. He also campaigned with U.S. Senator A. A. Jones, who was running for re-election, again working as an interpreter. Chavez lost his own election bid, but Jones won his race and brought Chavez on board as a clerk. Once in Washington, D.C., Chavez fulfilled his dream of attending law school, graduating from Georgetown University School of Law in 1920.
Chavez then returned to Albuquerque, where he set up a law practice and began to earn respect as a criminal lawyer. He also remained active in the Democratic Party and was urged to run for New Mexico's attorney general. Chavez, however, felt pulled toward the legislature and in 1922 was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives.
Within his state, Chavez gained notoriety when he sponsored legislation to provide free textbooks for children in public schools. Riding his wave of popularity, Chavez ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, handily winning the election and taking office in 1931. In Washington Chavez continued to support education and sponsored a bill granting New Mexico public land for education, including a college in Portales and a Spanish-American school in El Rito. Chavez also sponsored the Pueblo Lands Bill to sort out Indian land claims.
After two terms in the House, Chavez ran for the U.S. Senate, facing the incumbent, Republican Bronson Cutting, in 1934. Defeated by about 1,200 votes in a bitter election, Chavez accused the Republicans of voter fraud, and the election went under investigation. However, before the investigation was complete, Cutting died in a plane crash and the governor appointed Chavez to fill out the remainder of Cutting's term. Chavez would hold the seat through five more elections until his death in 1962.
Wielded Power, Influence in Senate
Remembering his studies of Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed every citizen the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Chavez became a champion for minorities, working tirelessly to end racial discrimination. In 1944 Chavez sponsored the Fair Employment Practices Act to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would work to end discrimination in the workplace due to race, creed, or national origin. Chavez introduced the bill in committee and spent two years working behind the scenes to get it approved by the committee and taken to the full Senate for a vote. Ultimately, the bill was defeated by a filibuster of conservative Republicans and Southerners that lasted from January 17 to February 9, 1946. Chavez, however, refused to give up. His tireless efforts would ultimately lead to the introduction and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provides for equal employment opportunities for minorities. Unfortunately, passage of the bill came two years after Chavez's death.
Chavez also spent his time in Washington keeping jobs rolling into New Mexico. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Chavez used his muscle to get military bases and weapons research facilities located in his home state. This influx of military dollars improved his state's economy by creating jobs that continue even today. Most notable, of course, is the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, which turned New Mexico into a key player in the development of the nation's defense programs and atomic research. Chavez believed wholeheartedly that the U.S. military must remain prepared and on the cutting edge. "There can be no price tag on freedom," Chavez declared, as reported in the New York Times. Aside from his work on defense, Chavez also served as chairman of the Public Works Committee, funneling money into highways, post offices, land improvement, flood control, irrigation, and power dams.
Later in life, the cigar-smoking senator was ill with cancer, yet continued working. He died of complications from the disease on November 18, 1962, in Washington, D.C., and was buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chavez's place as the first prominent Hispanic American in U.S. government is assured. He was awarded a statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, where each state is allowed to pay homage to just two of its heroes.
Acuña, Rodolfo, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, Harper & Row Publishers, 1981.
Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1971, United States Government Printing Office, 1971.
Vigil, Maurilio, Chicano Politics, University Press of America, 1977.
Vigil, Maurilio, Hispanics in Congress: A Historical and Political Survey, University Press of America, Inc., 1996.
Journal of Ethnic Studies, Winter 1986, pp. 1-20.
New York Times, November 19, 1962, p. 1; November 22, 1962, p. 29.
The first Hispanic American to be elected to the United States Senate, Democrat Dennis Chavez had a long and distinguished career in government service, first as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and then as a senator from the state of New Mexico. Chavez was a strong supporter of education and civil rights.
The third of eight children, Dionisio Chavez was born to David and Paz (Sanchez) Chavez on April 8, 1888. His family lived in what was then the United States Mexican Territory. (The area did not become the state of New Mexico until 1912.) When Chavez was seven, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. At school his name was changed to Dennis. Chavez quit school in the eighth grade and went to work. For the next five years he drove a grocery wagon to help support his family. He joined the Albuquerque Engineering Department in 1905, earning a large increase in income. Even after Chavez left school, he spent his evenings at the local public library. He was greatly interested in reading about politics, especially anything involving his hero, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826).
Chavez worked as a Spanish interpreter for Senate candidate Andreius A. Jones (1862–1927) during Jones's 1916 campaign. Jones rewarded him with a clerk's position in the U.S. Senate in 1918. While clerking, Chavez entered Georgetown University to study law. Although he had never finished high school, he was admitted after taking a special entrance examination. He earned a law degree from Georgetown in 1920 and returned to Albuquerque, where he established a successful law practice.
Political career begins
A Democrat like his hero Thomas Jefferson, Chavez became active in local politics, winning a seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives. In 1930 he ran successfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, defeating the incumbent (prior office holder), Republican Albert Simms (1882–1964). The population of New Mexico was still very small and Chavez served as the state's only representative. He was reelected once and then turned his sights toward the U.S. Senate.
In 1934 he ran against the powerful Republican incumbent, Bronson Cutting (1888–1935). After a hard-fought, bitter campaign and a narrow defeat, Chavez challenged Cutting's victory, claiming that vote fraud had taken place. In May 1935, before the issue could be decided, Cutting was killed in an airplane crash. Chavez was appointed by New Mexico's governor Clyde Tingley (1883–1960) to serve in Cutting's place. Five senators expressed their unhappiness with this by walking out of the Senate as Chavez was being sworn in. Chavez, however, was the clear choice of the people of New Mexico when he was officially elected to the position in 1936, defeating a popular Republican candidate.
Served with distinction
New Mexico voters showed their support for Chavez by reelecting him to the Senate five times. Although he was often criticized for his independent positions on various issues, Chavez was a strong supporter of the New Deal programs of President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945). These programs tried to increase employment and bring about political and social reforms in the 1930s by expanding the functions of the federal government. Chavez also supported Roosevelt's 1937 plan to enlarge the Supreme Court, which many others opposed. Chavez's service on important congressional committees, such as those dealing with education, labor, and Indian affairs, allowed him to fight for causes he believed in. He protested cuts in the amount of land given to Indians and demanded an investigation of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
In 1938 Chavez coauthored the Chavez-McAdoo Bill, which established a federal radio station in South America to compete with broadcasts that were being made there by fascist governments (military governments controlled by one party that deny the freedoms of individuals and use violence and terror to silence any opposition). However, in a surprising move the following year, he urged U.S. recognition of Spain's fascist leader, General Francisco Franco (1892–1975). Chavez also voted on behalf of measures to help farmers and took an interest in matters involving employment programs and unemployment benefits.
Chavez earned the nickname "Puerto Rico's Senator" in 1942 when he started an investigation into the causes of poor social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico. His support of a bill to improve living conditions and attract industry to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was important in helping it pass when it was put to a vote in the Senate. He also attracted national attention during his long fight for the creation of a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission. The bill was designed to protect workers from discrimination (unequal treatment) on the basis of race, religion, or national origin by employers or labor unions doing governmental work. The bill was eventually defeated in 1946—by only an eight-vote margin.
Dennis Chavez was the only national Hispanic American elected official of his time. He worked tirelessly to further the interests of the state of New Mexico and is credited for bringing significant amounts of federal funding as well as key military bases to the state. Chavez died in Washington, D.C., of a heart attack on November 18, 1962, at the age of seventy-four.
For More Information
Kanellos, Nicolás. Hispanic American Almanac. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Meier, Matt S. Mexican American Biographies, A Historical Dictionary: 1836–1987. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.
The first Hispanic American to be elected to the United States Senate, Democrat Dennis Chávez (1888-1962) led a long and distinguished career in government service, first as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and then as a senator from the state of New Mexico. Noted primarily for his long and unrelenting fight to create a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission, Chávez was also a staunch supporter of education and civil rights.
The third of eight children, Dionisio Chávez was born to David and Paz (Sanchez) Chávez on April 8, 1888. His family lived in in what was then the United States Mexican Territory. The area did not become the state of New Mexico until 1912. When he was seven, the family moved to Albuquerque. At school his name was changed to Dennis. Chávez quit school in the eighth grade and went to work. For the next five years he drove a grocery wagon to help support the family. He joined the Albuquerque Engineering Department in 1905, earning a substantial increase in income. Even after Chávez left school, he spent evenings at the local public library, reading about Thomas Jefferson and politics—his passions.
Chávez worked as an interpreter for senate candidate Andrieus A. Jones during the 1916 campaign. Jones rewarded him with a clerkship in the U.S. Senate in 1918-1919. While clerking, Chávez also entered Georgetown University through a special entrance examination to study law. He earned a Bachelor of Laws degree from Georgetown in 1920, and returned to Albuquerque, where he established a successful law practice.
Political Career Began with State Legislature
A Democrat in the tradition of his hero Thomas Jefferson, Chávez became active in local politics, winning election to the New Mexico House of Representatives. In 1930 he ran successfully for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, handily defeating the incumbent Republican, Albert Simms. He served as the thinly populated state's only representative. He was reelected once and then turned his sights toward the U.S. Senate. In 1934 he ran against the powerful Republican incumbent, Bronson Cutting. After a hard-fought, bitter campaign and a narrow defeat, Chávez challenged the validity of Cutting's victory, charging vote fraud. The issue reached to the Senate floor. The matter was still pending in May 1935, when Cutting was killed in an airplane crash. Chávez was appointed by New Mexico's Governor Tingley to serve in Cutting's place. Five senators expressed their disapproval by walking out of the Senate as Chávez was being sworn in. Chávez, however, was the people of New Mexico's clear choice when he was officially elected to the position in 1936, defeating a popular Republican candidate.
Served with Distinction
New Mexico voters showed their support for Chávez by reelecting him to the Senate five times. Although his often independent stands on various issues generated controversy, Chávez was a strong supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs. His service on important Congressional committees allowed him to fight for causes he believed in. Chávez was a member of the Committees on Territories and Insular Affairs, the Education and Labor, Appropriations and Indian Affairs. In the last, he protested measures affecting Navajo grazing stock and also demanded an investigation of Indian Affairs Commissioner Collier.
In 1938 Chávez co-authored the Chávez-McAdoo bill, which established a federal radio station to counter Nazi and Fascist broadcasts into South America. In a curious move the following year, he advocated U.S. recognition of Spain's fascist leader, General Francisco Franco. He usually took a liberal stance on farm issues, voting for the draft deferment of farm laborers and against reductions in farm security appropriations. He was also active in measures regarding tariffs, employment programs, and unemployment benefits.
Chávez earned the nickname "Puerto Rico's Senator" in 1942 when he initiated an investigation into the causes of social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico. His support of a Senate bill to extend public works projects in that territory and the Virgin Islands was decisive in its passage.
Chávez attracted national attention during his long fight for enactment of a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission. The bill was designed to prevent employers or labor unions doing government work from discriminating on the basis of race, creed, color, ancestry, or national origin. The bill was eventually defeated in 1946—by only an eight-vote margin.
Dennis Chávez worked tirelessly to further the interests of the state of New Mexico. He is credited for garnering significant amounts of federal funding as well as key defense installations for the state. Chávez married Imelda Espinoza in 1911. They had three children: two daughters and a son. Chávez died of a heart attack on November 18, 1962, at the age of 74.
Hispanic-American Almanac, edited by Nicolás Kanellos, Detroit, Gale Research, 1993.
Mexican American Biographies, A Historical Dictionary: 1836-1987, edited by Matt S. Meier, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988. □
Dennis Chavez (April 8, 1888–November 18, 1962) was a U.S. Senator from New Mexico. One of only a handful of Mexican Americans ever elected to the Senate, Chavez ardently supported the New Deal to bring jobs and educational opportunities to his constituents.
Born Dionisio Chavez in Los Chaves, New Mexico, the future New Dealer entered school for the first time in 1895 when his family moved to Albuquerque. He quit after the seventh grade to help support his parents and eight siblings. While working full time as a delivery boy, Chavez continued his education by reading extensively. In 1917, he received a Senate clerkship and eventually parlayed this opportunity into admission at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C. At this time, the only requirement to enter law school was satisfactory completion of entrance examinations. Chavez received his degree at the age of thirty-two and returned to Albuquerque to practice law.
Although his father had served as a Republican precinct captain, Republican neglect of his Mexican-American neighborhood led Chavez to register as a Democrat. In 1922, he won his first political seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives. Eight years later, he entered the U.S. House of Representatives, receiving much of his support from the large Hispanic electorate in the state. In 1934, Chavez ran for the U.S. Senate but narrowly lost to incumbent Bronson Cutting and then charged fraud. Cutting's sudden death ended the dispute, and Chavez received an appointment to the vacant seat. He would remain in the Senate until his death in 1962.
In the 1930s, Chavez firmly backed the New Deal, advocated neutrality, and sought to improve relations with Latin America. Mostly associated with the Works Progress Administration, Chavez pushed the agency to provide jobs to New Mexico's poor and to use its funds to construct schools to enable others to follow his footsteps out of poverty. He supported the Good Neighbor policy of Franklin Roosevelt that ended U.S. intervention in Latin America and, in 1939, he advocated recognition of Francisco Franco's Spain as a further means of improving relations with the countries to the south of the U.S. border.
Still, Chavez did not become a national figure until 1944, when he introduced a bill prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, or ancestry. The legislation died, but Chavez claimed a notable place in history by laying the groundwork for subsequent civil rights legislation.
Lujan, Roy. "Dennis Chavez and the National Agenda." New Mexico Historical Review 74, no. 1 (1999): 55–74.
Nance, Arden R. "Partisan Politics and Progress: Roosevelt's New Deal in New Mexico." Password 45, no. 1 (2000): 32–40.
Caryn E. Neumann