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.
Further Reading on Dennis Chávez
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.