By John P. Schmal
Congressman Edward Roybal was a pioneer. Ed Roybal had the unique and tenacious qualities that most of us wish we had. In some ways, it was not surprising that he was a pioneer, Roybal belonged to the “Greatest Generation.” Like many other men in his age bracket, he had served in World War II and came back with new and grandiose ideas about the way things should be.
Having served his nation in its time of need, Ed Roybal decided it was time to bring about change in his adopted State of California. From the beginning of the Century until 1947, no Mexican American from California had served in the U.S. Congress. Nor had any Mexican American served as Mayor of Los Angeles or as a member of the Los Angeles City Council since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. And only one Hispanic had served in the State Assembly and State Senate (Miguel Estudillo), back during the Second Decade of the Century.
Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Edward R. Roybal came to Boyle Heights in 1922 with his parents. Roybal graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended UCLA before going to World War II. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles and became the Director of Health Education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Association.
In 1947, 30-year-old Roybal attempted to run for the office of Councilperson of the 9th Council District, which included Boyle Heights, Bunker Hill, Civic Center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Central Avenue District. At this time, Chicanos represented roughly a third of the districts’ population. Three years later, the racial makeup of the district’s 185,033 residents in the Federal Census was: 45% White, 34% Latino and 15% African American. Even Roybal’s hometown, Boyle Heights, was just 43% Hispanic at the time, while 34% of the inhabitants were Caucasians.
In the primary election for the council seat on April 1, 1947, the incumbent Councilman, Parley Parker Christensen, defeated Edward Roybal. As was expected, three-quarters of Roybal’s support had come from his base of support in Boyle Heights.
Soon after this election, a very determined and focused Ed Roybal collaborated with several of his campaign supporters to organize the CPO (Community Political Organization) in September 1947. Later renamed as the CSO (Community Service Organization), this organization became the first broad-based organization within East L.A.’s Chicano community, representing veterans, businessmen and workers. In its first years, the CSO became primarily engaged in registering Mexican Americans to vote. In this pursuit, the CSO succeeded, as its members were able to register 15,000 new voters in the barrios of Boyle Heights, Belvedere and other sections of East Los Angeles.
In 1949, Edward Roybal felt confident that he had built up a strong enough political base to make a second run for the Ninth District seat once again. In the April 5 primary election, Roybal knocked Daniel Sullivan and Julia Sheehan out of the council race by capturing 37% of the total votes cast. This forced a runoff with Councilperson Christensen in the General Election that was held on May 31, 1949. This time, Edward Roybal soundly defeated six-term Councilman Christensen by a vote of 20,472 to 11,956, winning by almost 2-to-1. With this victory, Ed Roybal became the first Mexican American since 1887 to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
Roybal would win reelection four times (1951, 1953, 1957 and 1961), even though his 9th District experienced boundary changes in 1956. During this redistricting, the southern boundary of the District was moved from 41st Street to Slauson Avenue, increasing the number of African Americans in the district from 15% in 1950 to 38% in 1960.
Councilperson Roybal served his district from July 1, 1949 to Dec. 31, 1962, at which time he moved on to the U.S. Congress in 1963. He maintained his support largely through the support of his African-American constituency. By the time Roybal left office, 51% of the 9th District’s registered voters were African American, while 34% were Latino.
Roybal was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on November 6, 1962. He was the first Chicano from California to serve in Congress since the 1879 election of Romualdo Pacheco. He would serve as Congressman until 1993. In his first term in Congress, Congressman Roybal served on the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee and the Post Office Committee. During his second term, he was assigned to the Foreign Affairs Committee; two years later, in addition to his previous committee assignments, he served on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In 1967, Ed Roybal authored the first bilingual education bill to provide local school districts assistance with special-bilingual teaching programs. In 1968 with the goal of improving educational, housing, and employment opportunities for Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens, he worked to establish a Cabinet Committee on Opportunities for Spanish-speaking people.
In 1971, Congressman Roy-bal took a seat on the Appropriations Committee, where he would continue to serve until his retirement many years later. In the 93rd Congress, Roybal introduced legislation to provide bilingual proceedings in courts. To support his legislation, he drew upon a report that disclosed widespread discrimination, police misconduct, and the denial of equal protection under the law in the administration of justice toward Mexican-Americans in the Southwest.
In the 1980’s, Roybal was named Chairman of the Treasury-Postal Service-General Government Subcommittee and served on the Labor-Health and Human Services-Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. He also served on the Select Committee on Aging, of which he became Chairman in the 98th Congress. From these positions, he worked on various legislative proposals; in 1980 he led the campaign for the restoration of funds to programs for the elderly, including a senior citizens’ public housing program and a community-based alternative to nursing homes. That same year he voted to strengthen fair housing laws and to establish a Department of Education. In 1982 he was successful in maintaining the Meals on Wheels program and protecting veterans’ preference jobs. The following year he voted to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
During the 97th Congress, Roybal chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where he led the opposition against the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which imposed sanctions on U.S. employers who hired illegal immigrants.
In the 100th Congress, Roy-bal worked for the expansion of rural mental health-care programs, and the establishment of a national mental health education program. In the 101st Congress, Roybal played a key role in helping to pass legislation that reversed a 1989 Supreme Court decision allowing age-based discrimination in employee benefits.
During his three decades of service in the U.S. House of Representatives, Roybal work-ed to protect the rights of minorities, the elderly, and the physically-challenged.
It was ironic that Edward Roybal and Rosa Parks died at the same time. Rosa Parks was also a pioneer, an ordinary person with extraordinary qualities, who became the symbol of a movement. Eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus, Roybal made a decision to pursue a political office that most people were certain he would not get. They were right. Mr. Roybal lost the election, but came back two years later and won (against the same opponent). Through his efforts, Ed Roybal paved the way, slowly and gradually, for a whole generation of Chicano legislators in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. In many ways, he became a symbol and a patriarch for all those Chicanos who have served in the State since 1962.
Note: Special thanks to the “Hispanic Americans in Congress” website and to the Pacific Historical Review. A significant portion of this story has been extracted from those two sources.