Esteban Torres, LA congressman who campaigned for Latino rights, dies at 91


Esteban Torres, an East Los Angeles son who emerged from the Chicano civil rights movement to become an eight-year-old congressman who pushed for social and economic change to empower Latinos, has died at the age of 91.

Torres, a former union leader who served in President Carter’s administration, died Tuesday of natural causes, according to a family statement.

“Torres was a pioneering public servant and a lifelong fighter for the common good,” U.S. Senator Alex Padilla said in a statement. “Torres’ pride in his working-class and immigrant roots and his belief in the American Dream fueled his commitment to labor activism and community organizing.”

Janet Murguia, President and CEO of UnidosUS, recalled working with Torres to protect workers and encourage investment in border communities during debates on the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact signed by Mexico, Canada and the US

“From the moment he took office, he made improving the lives of Hispanics in our country his top priority,” she said. “He played a crucial role in both the passage and later implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave legal status to more than 3 million people.”

As a child, Torres lived in a camp in Arizona where his father worked in the copper mines.

Eventually, the elder Torres was deported through the United States along with more than a million other people of Mexican descent “Mexican Repatriation Program” although many were US citizens.

Torres never saw his father again.

Early in his activism, Torres championed workers’ rights as a workers’ organizer and president of the United Auto Workers union, which would eventually help launch his political career.

He was also an anti-poverty activist. In 1968 he was co-founder the East Los Angeles Community Union, a community development organization, his family said. He was its Executive Director until 1974, when he first ran for Congress, a race he lost.

Torres returned to the UAW as Deputy Director of International Affairs and was appointed US Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris by President Carter. He also served as the Special Assistant for Hispanic Affairs at the White House until the end of Carter’s tenure.

The following year he was elected to Congress, where he served eight terms, representing the then-newly drawn 34th congressional district, which included much of East Los Angeles, where he grew up.

In Washington, during his first term, Torres led the first comprehensive investigation into West Covina’s BKK landfill, one of the most hazardous in the country. He also pushed for an overhaul of the country’s consumer credit reporting guidelines and helped draft legislation to ensure that low-income victims of natural disasters receive full government assistance.

Torres also helped secure millions of dollars for public transportation projects in Los Angeles County and beyond. From 1989 to 1991 he was chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“I’ve reached the pinnacle of success in my own eyes,” Torres told the Times when he retired in 1999. “It’s time to let the younger generation succeed.”

Esteban Edward Torres was born on January 27, 1930 in Miami, Arizona. In his father’s absence, he moved to East LA with his mother and grandmother. After graduating from Garfield High School, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Corps of Engineers during the Korean War.

After his release, Torres continued his education, attending the Los Angeles Art Center, East Los Angeles College, and then Cal State Los Angeles. He also earned degrees in economics from the University of Maryland and the American University in Washington.

In 1955 he married Arcy Sanchez and started a family. To support his growing family, he worked on the assembly line at Chrysler’s Maywood plant. Here he became active in the United Auto Workers union and quickly rose through the ranks.

After leaving Congress, Torres served on the California Transportation Commission and was a visiting professor at Whittier College and UCLA.

Along with former LA County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he co-founded LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a downtown Los Angeles museum that explores the cultural influence of Latinos in the city.

“I knew years ago when I saw him in East LA he was talking about a Latin American or Mexican American cultural center, how we got erased in history and how important it was for us to tell our stories,” he said Molina. “So when I was thinking about putting together the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, he was certainly one of the first people I wanted to work with.”

Torres was also an accomplished artist, whose work was exhibited in galleries throughout Los Angeles and admired by his colleagues in Congress.

In 2010, a newly built high school in East LA was named after him, an honor more commonly given after someone’s death. Torres enjoyed stopping by campus and talking about his rise from East LA to Congress.

In 2020, Torres received the UCLA Medalthe highest honor bestowed on a person by the university.

As part of a virtual homage, he thanked those who had nominated him for the award. Among those who congratulated him was Xavier Becerra, now Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Becerra said he remembered running up the steps of the Capitol as a congressman and feeling Torres grab his shoulder. Look around, Torres said.

Becerra said he noticed the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Thomas Jefferson Building.

“Xavier, never forget where you will enter because very few Americans, especially those like us, have ever had that opportunity.”

Torres is survived by his wife, five children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Esteban Torres, LA congressman who campaigned for Latino rights, dies at 91

Caroline Bleakley

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