Latino Representation in California (1849-2017)
Forging the path to recognition
John P. Schmal
The November 2016 Election
Published on LatinoLA: August 25, 2017
After the recent November 2016 Election, the representation of Latinos in the California Assembly increased from 23 to 27. With 27 assembly members out of 80 in the entire state, Latinos have achieved 34% representation. By comparison, the 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) reported that there were 14.7 million Latinos in California, representing 38.4% of the entire population.
In the California Senate, there are now five Latino Senators out of a total of 40 (13% representation). Thus, the total number of Latino California Legislators now numbers 32 out of 120 legislators, with about 27% representation in that body. This is in stark contrast to political situation in California from 1886 to the 1990s, when Latino representation was either non-existent or severely deficient. The struggle for Latino political representation has been a hard fought, long-term battle that started in 1848 and continues to this day.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)
On May 13, 1846, the United States Congress, at the request of President James Knox Polk, declared war on the Mexican Republic. And thus began the Mexican-American War. The war in California ended less than a year later with the Treaty of Cahuenga, signed on January 13, 1847. Another year later, on February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo forced Mexico to hand over to the United States 525,000 square miles of landing, including California.
Of the treaty's twenty-three articles, four defined the rights of Mexican citizens and Indian people in the territories. Californians were given the freedom to live in ceded territories as either American or Mexican citizens. The new American citizens would be entitled to "the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States according to the principles of the constitutions."
The First California Constitution (1849)
A year later, forty-eight delegates met in Monterey to put together the first California Constitution. For six weeks from September to November 1849 the Constitutional Convention created a constitution that would guarantee rights to all citizens living within California's borders. The final Constitution -- written in both English and Spanish -- provided that all major legislation in the future would be written in both English and Spanish.
Article XI, Section 21 of California's 1849 Constitution reflected the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo's guarantee, declaring, "All laws, decrees, regulations, and provisions, which from their nature require publication, shall be published in English and Spanish." Article II, "Right of Suffrage," Section 1, stated that "Every white male citizen of the United States, and every white male citizen of Mexico, who shall have elected to become a citizen of the United States, under the treaty of peace exchanged and ratified at Queretaro, on the 30th day of May, 1848 of the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of the State six months next preceding the election, and the county or district in which he claims his vote thirty days, shall be entitled to vote at all elections which are now or hereafter may authorized by law."
Section 5 decreed: "Every citizen of California, declared a legal voter by this Constitution and every citizen of the United States, a resident of this State on the day of election, shall be entitled to vote at the first general election under this Constitution, and on the question of the adoption thereof." Eight Californios -- six of them Mexican Californians -- represented Hispanic interests at the Convention. They were as follows:
1. Antonio M. Pico from San Jose
2. Jacinto Rodriguez from Monterey
3. Pablo de la Guerra from Santa Barbara
4. M.G. Vallejo from Sonora
5. Jos. Antonio Carrillo from Los Angeles
6. Manuel Dominguez from Los Angeles
7. Miguel de Pedrorena, a native of San Diego (from San Diego).
8. Jos. M. Covarrubias, a native of France (representing Santa Barbara).
The sad reality of this bilingual convention is that -- even before the ink was dry on the official paper -- certain Anglo-American interests were taking steps that would lead to a gradual and continuous appropriation of Chicano suffrage. This action, to some people, may have been regarded as the logical prerogative of a conquering people over a conquered people. But the conquerors -- once Mexico had requested peace -- signed a treaty and wrote a constitution that guaranteed citizenship and voting rights to the Californios who had well-established roots in this region. This had been a promise and, by 1893, most of these guarantees had been eliminated through legislation and plebiscites.
The Early California Legislature
During the first couple of decades, several prominent Californio families of Spanish and Mexican origin who held large tracts of land called ranchos, shared the reins of power with the Anglos who were arriving in their territory in ever-greater numbers. But, in the First California Constitutional Legislature, which commenced on December 15, 1849 in San Jose, was attended by a nineteen delegates from the northern states of the U.S. Another ten hailed from the southern states, but no natives of California were represented in the Assembly. Jose M. Covarrubias, a Californio landowner in the Santa Barbara area, but a native of France, was one of the few Assemblypersons with any strong California ties going back more than a decade.
The first California Senate in 1849 was composed of nine members from northern states, five members from southern states, and only two members who were native Californians. The session lasted four months and adjourned on April 22, 1850. Less than half a year later, on September 9, 1850, California would be admitted as the thirty-first American state.
The first session of the California Legislation after statehood commenced on January 6, 1851 and lasted until May 1, 1951. One of the delegates representing Los Angeles for the Whig Party was a well-known Californian named Andres Pico. Andres –- the brother of the last Mexican Governor, Pio Pico -- was the Mexican military officer who had fought the American forces under his commander, General Jose Maria Flores.
On January 13, 1847, Andres Pico, seeing that continued resistance to the American forces was hopeless, met with Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fremont, the commander of the American forces, and signed the Treaty of Cahuenga in the San Fernando Valley. Article 5 of the capitulation declared, "Equal rights and privileges are vouchsafed to every citizen of California as are enjoyed by the citizens of the United States."
Andres Pico became the first Californio to be elected to the Assembly as the representative of District 2 in the 2nd (1851) and 3rd (1853) legislative sessions. He changed his party affiliation to Democrat and was elected to the Assembly from District 2 once again for the 9th (1858) and 10th (1859) legislative sessions. Another Californian landowner, Jose M. Covarrubias, served on the California state assembly off and on from 1849 to 1862, representing Santa Barbara district.
Early Chicano Representation in California
For the first three decades after statehood, some Chicanos were able to find the occasional support of their constituency and represent their home districts. Pedro C. Carrillo of Santa Barbara served as a delegate from the 2nd District in 1854-55. Manuel A. Castro of San Luis Obispo served as a delegate from the 2nd District in 1856-57 and from the 6th District in 1863. Esteban Castro from Monterey served in the State Assembly as a delegate to the 3rd District (1857-58) and the 6th District (1863-65).
Ygnacio Sepulveda of Los Angeles became a member of the California State Assembly in 1863-65 as the representative of the 2nd District. Ygnacio went on to become a Judge of the Seventeenth Judicial District, one of the first two Superior Court Justices in Los Angeles County. Another Californio, Mariano G. Pacheco served as a representative of California's 3rd District from 1852 to 1854.
It was Mariano's brother who stands as the most spectacular Chicano legislator during California's Nineteenth Century. Born in Santa Barbara in 1831, Romualdo Pacheco was a proud Californian who also had roots in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Señor Pacheco originally served as superior court judge in San Luis Obispo from 1853-1857. Romualdo moved on to serve in the State Assembly in 1853-55 and 1868-70. In 1857, he first started serving in the California State Senate and he continued to serve intermittently, also in 1861-63 and 1869-70.
Romualdo served as a brigadier general in command of the First Brigade of California's Native Cavalry during the American Civil War. During the Republican State Convention of 1863, Governor Stanford nominated Pacheco for the position of state treasurer. Fluent in both Spanish and English, Romualdo Pacheco was a popular politician who got along well with both Californians and Anglos-Americans and, in June 1871, he received the Republican Party nomination for Lieutenant Governor of California.
In 1875, when Governor Newton Booth was elected to the U.S. Senate, Pacheco became the Governor of California. His stay in the Governor's office was relatively short and, in November 1876, Romualdo ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to serve in the Forty-fifth Congress (1877-1878), winning by a margin of one vote. He later served in the Forty-sixth and Forty-seventh Congresses (March 4, 1879 to March 3, 1883). Even after his career as a representative ended, Pacheco served in his later years as a minister to several Central American countries before his death in 1899.
The Gradual Erosion of Voting Rights
As the Nineteenth Century wore on, a gradual erosion of Mexican-American's rights as citizens took place. The Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1870, had 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 all Californian Mexican-Americans and other minorities a voice in both local and national politics.
The 1879 California Constitution
In practice, however, the Fifteenth Amendment was flagrantly violated in the years to follow by the California Legislature. One of the most blatant examples of this was the adoption of the 1879 California Constitution. The revised Constitution officially rescinded the linguistic protective provisions of the 1849 Constitution, providing that "no person who shall not be able to read the Constitution in the English language and write his or her name, shall ever exercise the privileges of an elector in this State." With one fell swoop, the guarantee of bilingual publication of laws was revoked and no documents relating to elections were thereafter published in Spanish.
The English Literacy Requirement (1891)
In 1891, Assemblyman A. J. Bledsoe introduced an English literacy requirement as a proposed constitutional amendment in the State Assembly. Bledsoe had earlier belonged to the vigilante Committee of Fifteen that had expelled every person of Chinese ancestry from Humboldt County. In his introduction, he lamented the "the increased immigration of the illiterate and unassimilated elements of Europe" and expressed his belief that American labor force should be shielded "from this destructive competition."
Although the Assembly voted down the proposal on January 21, 1891, a flood of petitions from the public favoring the literacy requirement flooded Sacramento. With such overwhelming support from their constituents, the Legislature hastily adopted Bledsoe's proposal as a constitutional amendment subject to ratification at the next general election. In 1894, the people of California voted to approve the English literacy requirement, which henceforth before part of Article II, Section 1.
Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in California
The anti-immigrant attitude directed at Asians, Mexicans and Eastern Europeans prevailed into the first half of the Twentieth Century to the point that it was even written into the California election laws. Section 5567 of the California Elections Code, as adopted in 1941, required that elections be conducted in the English language and prohibited election officials from speaking any language other than English while on duty at the polling stations.
Such actions violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and, therefore, were unconstitutional. But the literacy law remained on the books in California until it was challenged in the California courts many decades later. In the landmark court case, Genoveva Castro et al. versus the State of California, the constitutionality of the English literacy requirement was challenged. The Court eventually concluded that "the English literacy requirement was a direct product of the narrow and fearful nativism rampant in California politics at the end of the nineteenth century."
Interregnum: The Dark Years (1886-1963)
In the 77-year-period from 1886 to 1963, only one Hispanic representative from California (Miguel Estudillo) went to either Sacramento or Washington, D.C. For the first half of the Twentieth Century, anti-immigrant legislation and sentiment prevented fair political representation of Chicanos and other minorities groups in California. The one standout during this period, Miguel Estudillo, served Riverside as California State Senator (1904-1908) and as California State Assembly member (1908-1913).
One of the most successful tactics for limiting minority representation is a practice known as gerrymandering. In California, legislatures were able to divide a county or city into oddly shaped representational districts to give political advantage to Anglos in elections. Thus, even in areas with a large Chicano community (such as East Los Angeles), fracturing and reapportionment were able to prevent Hispanics from getting elected to office for many decades.
The Battle for Representation Begins (1961)
In 1961, Los Angeles City Councilperson, Edward Roybal, testifying before the State's Reapportionment and Elections Committee, complained about the fragmentation of the Chicano communities in L.A. He stressed the importance of creating Hispanic districts. Although most of the redistricting that took place in 1961 (following the 1960 census) resulted in the continued gerrymandering of the Latino community in the Los Angeles area, one congressional district was created that would pave a way for Mr. Roybal to run for Congress.
A New Generation Takes the Helm (1962-1963)
In 1962, Philip Soto and John Moreno became the first two Latinos from Los Angeles County to be elected to the California State Legislature in the Twentieth Century. (They took their offices in 1963.) They were also the first Latinos to be elected to serve in the State Assembly since the election of Miguel Estudillo of Riverside County in 1907. The election of these two men set a precedent for a long line of Latino legislators committed to the service of their communities.
An important factor in the rise of Chicano power in the 1960s was World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Hispanic Americans served in the U.S. military, many receiving numerous decorations for their service. These proud veterans returned to their native land, but still experienced various forms of discrimination and prejudice. But, for the first time in a long time, one piece of legislation presented Chicano veterans with an opportunity for advancement in California.
The G.I. Bill Act of June 22, 1944 –- also known as the Servicemen's Readjustment Act put higher education within the reach of thousands of Mexican-American veterans. The Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 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 high education. Armed with the weapon of education, many of these Chicano veterans became the politicians of the 1960s and 1970s.
John Moreno, a World War II veteran, was a Democrat from Los Angeles and served as a representative of the 51st District to the California State Assembly. Unfortunately, in 1964, when Moreno tried to run again, he was defeated in the Democratic Primary by Jack Fenton. In 1964, Soto won reelection by 2,178 votes in the general election. Facing the same opponent in 1966, however, he lost by 4,309 votes, possibly due to boundary changes of his district by the 1966 reapportionment.
Edward Roybal: A Legislative Pioneer
On November 6, 1962, the Democrat Edward Ross Roybal became the first Hispanic from California to serve in Congress since the 1879 election of Romualdo Pacheco. A native of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Roybal had come to the Boyle Heights Barrio with his family when he was six years old. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Edward Roybal ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1947, but was defeated. Soon after, Roybal became one of the founders of the Community Service Organization (CSO). In 1949 the CSO held voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives in East Los Angeles and supported Roybal's bid for election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. He won, and was subsequently reelected and served until 1962.
Edward Roybal took his seat in the House of Representatives on January 3, 1963 at the start of the 88th U.S. Congress. He would serve for twenty years from the 88th Congress to the 102nd Congress, retiring on January 3, 1993. At the start of his Congressional career, Representative Roybal represented the 30th District from 1963 to 1975. From 1975 to 1993, he served in the 25th District. In 1976, Roybal became one of the founding members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In 1992, he chose not to run for reelection. That year his daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represented part of his old district, which had been divided in redistricting.
Voting Rights Move Forward (1965-2002)
The rights of Latinos were further reinforced by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This legislation, as amended in 1975 and 1982, prohibited the use of voting laws or procedures that discriminated against anyone on the basis of race, color, or membership in a minority language group. The provisions of this act outlawed the literacy tests that had kept so many Latinos out of the voting booth.
In 1968, when the California Legislature was once again without Latino representatives, Alex Garcia, a Democrat from Los Angeles, was elected to the Assembly. Mr. Garcia had been a field Representative for Congressman Ed Roybal for five years before he decided to run for office in the State Assembly. Assemblyman Garcia was the lone Latino in the California Legislature until 1970, when Peter Chacon, a Democrat from San Diego, was elected to office.
In the 1972, three more Latinos won election to the State Assembly: Joseph Montoya, Ray Gonzales, and Richard Alatorre. Aware of their unified strength, the five Latinos serving in the State Legislature officially formed the Chicano Legislative Caucus. The establishment of the Caucus marked a significant turning point in the political empowerment of the Latino community. For the first time in California's legislative history, an agenda was established and legislative priorities were put forward to protect and preserve the rights of Latinos throughout California.
The Chicano Assemblymen and Congressional delegates of the 1960s and early 1970s forged an important path for other people to follow, and Latino representation slowly, but steadily, increased both in California and in the United States. The struggle has been long and hard-fought. But, with the Latino population increasing at a significant rate, Chicano political analysts see that time and demographics are on their side.
Copyright © 2017, John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.
California Latino Legislative Caucus. Online: http://latinocaucus.legislature.ca.gov/member-directory
John P. Schmal, "The Journey to Latino Political Representation" (2007: Heritage Books).
John P. Schmal, "The Journey to Latino Political Representation" (2013 Presentation). Online:
Latino Community Foundation Blog, "Latinos and the 2016 Election: Where Do We Go From Here?" -- December 13, 2016. Online:
Leadership California Institute, California Latino Legislative Caucus & National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), "The Status of Latinos in California" (2015).
Library of Congress: "Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995: List in Chronological Order." Online: http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/congress/chron.html.
NALEO, "Historic Number of Latinos to Serve in State Legislatures Following Election 2016," Nov. 15, 2016. Online:
Ralph Guzman, "Politics and Policies of the Mexican American Community," in "California Politics and Policies" (Eugene P. Dvorin & Arthur J. Misner, eds., 1966).
John P. Schmal:
John Schmal lectures on Indigenous Mexico, Mexican Genealogy and German Genealogy.