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Dennis Chavez: 1888-1962: Legislator

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.

—Lisa Frick

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) BiographyDennis Chavez: 1888-1962: Legislator Biography - Self-educated At Local Library, Earned Law Degree, Wielded Power, Influence In Senate