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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Esteban Torres, congressional advocate for Latinos, dies at 91

Esteban Torres, right, with the Iowa Republican Jim Leach, chairman of the House Banking Committee, at a news conference in 1997 introducing legislation to lift the U.S. embargo of food and medicine exports to Cuba.

By Katharine Q. Seelye

Esteban Torres, an eight-term Democratic member of Congress from California who was dedicated to fighting poverty and who served for a time as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, died Tuesday. He was 91.

A family statement said he died two days before his 92nd birthday but gave no further details.

Before he was elected to Congress in 1982, Torres was a union representative and a high-ranking official with the United Auto Workers. He also worked on anti-poverty programs and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to positions at the United Nations and in the White House.

He served eight terms in Congress, representing a heavily Hispanic district that included parts of East Los Angeles, where he grew up.

“From the moment he took office, he made improving the lives of Hispanics in our country a top priority,” Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, said in a statement.

She said Torres played a crucial role in the passage and implementation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave legal status to more than 3 million people.

He pushed for changes in national policy to help people in his district, as well as those similarly situated throughout the country. This included helping to draft a measure to ensure that low-income victims of natural disasters received full federal assistance.

Esteban Torres was born Jan. 27, 1930, in Miami, Arizona, to parents from Mexico. His father worked in the copper mines and was deported to Mexico during the repatriation of Mexican Americans in the 1930s. This was a seminal experience for Torres, who never saw his father again and who vowed to make sure immigrants were treated fairly and with dignity.

He was raised mostly by his mother, Rena Gómez, who moved the family to East Los Angeles when Torres was 6. After graduating from high school in 1949 and serving in the U.S. Army in Korea, he found work as an assembly line welder at a Chrysler plant in Maywood, in Los Angeles County. He was active in the UAW, where he was elected a chief steward, and became a labor organizer. With help from the GI Bill of Rights, he attended East Los Angeles College and California State University at Los Angeles.

He later founded the East Los Angeles Community Union, which became one of the largest anti-poverty agencies in the country. Carter appointed him U.S. permanent representative to UNESCO in Paris, where he served from 1977-79. He then spent two years as director of the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs.

After leaving politics, Torres pursued his hobbies of painting and sculpting and was a founder of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum in downtown Los Angeles dedicated to the cultural influence of Latinos in the city.

He is survived by his wife, Arcy Sanchez; his children, Carmen, Rena, Camille, Selina and Esteban; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

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