By George Ramos
Edward R. Roybal, a pioneer in Latino politics in Los Angeles and a godfather and mentor to scores of lawmakers, died Monday of pneumonia, according to the district office of his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles). He was 89.
Roybal, who championed the rights of the
underprivileged and the aged during 30 years in
Congress, began his political career in 1949 on the
Los Angeles City Council as the first person of
Mexican descent to sit on the council since 1881; it
would take another 23 years before another Mexican
American took a seat on the City Council.
"The congressman was a true barrier breaker and a
political legend, particularly in the Mexican American
community," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria
Molina, who considered Roybal a mentor, said in a
statement today. "Throughout his tenure, he remained
committed to Latinos, the elderly, the poor, and the
"A champion for civil rights and social justice like
him does not come around every day," Los Angeles Mayor
Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. "He wanted
nothing less than what all Americans strive for - a
good job, safe neighborhoods, quality schools and a
place to call home."
In 1993, Roybal told a Times interviewer that at his
first City Council meeting, he was introduced as "our
new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican."
"I discarded my prepared speech," Roybal said. "My
mission was immediately obvious. I'm not Mexican. I am
a Mexican American. And I don't speak a word of
Mexican. I speak Spanish."
It became his role, he said, to educate his fellow
public officials about Latinos and pay special
attention to what he felt were the long-neglected
needs of his largely Latino constituencies.
One way he did this was to harshly criticize the Los
Angeles Police Department for its treatment of
minorities, and he had own his story to underscore his
On his first date with his future wife, Lucille, in
the early 1940s, a white officer came up behind the
teenage couple - they were sharing chili beans and
crackers at a stand at 4th and Soto streets in Boyle
Heights - and went through Roybal's pockets. The
officer then dumped the couple's dinner on the
sidewalk, the former congressman told a Times
"That kind of stuff was happening all the time,"
Roybal also was an outspoken opponent of the city land
swap that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers prime real
estate for a new ballpark in Chavez Ravine, which was
largely populated by Mexican Americans, in exchange
for Wrigley Field, a minor league baseball stadium at
42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard.
Roybal-Allard later recalled that her father received
many angry calls at home from supporters of the deal.
"One man said my father was un-American because he was
against baseball and the Dodgers," said Roybal-Allard,
now a Democratic member of Congress representing East
Los Angeles. "I was a young girl at the time and I
tried to convince the man that my dad was right. I
wasn't able to."
Roybal, the first Latino politician from the Eastside
to gain wide recognition, was considered an
up-and-coming Democrat. Although he lost a bid in 1954
to become California's lieutenant governor, four years
later he came close to defeating Ernest Debs for a
seat on the five-member Los Angeles County Board of
Supervisors. Roybal initially held a 390-vote lead on
election night and, when a 12,000-vote error was
discovered, there were four recounts. Roybal
eventually lost to Debs amid suspicions that the
election was taken from him simply because he was
In 1962, he successfully ran for Congress in the 25th
District, which stretched from Hollywood through the
downtown area to East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.
In Congress, he championed the rights of illegal
immigrants, including opposing the landmark 1986
amnesty law, which led to the legalization of more
than a 1.5 million Latinos. He instead favored a more
generous plan that would have legalized more Latinos.
He also was instrumental in getting Congress to
approve funds to provide medical, welfare and
educational services to eligible immigrants.
Harry Pachon, who was Roybal's chief of staff in
Washington D.C. from 1977 to 1981, said his former
boss didn't worry about the consequences of his votes.
"He voted his conscience, even when people made fun of
him," Pachon said.
Never a headline grabber, Roybal used his position as
a member of the powerful House Appropriations
Committee in the 1960s and `70s to secure
congressional funding for key programs. In 1967, he
introduced and won approval for the first federal
bilingual education law, which established English
classes for migrant children and others. The law began
to change the practice in California and elsewhere of
funneling non-English speakers into remedial classes.
Roybal worked tirelessly on behalf of seniors in the
1980s as chairman of the House Select Committee on
Aging. In 1980, he persuaded Congress to restore $15
million it had cut from senior citizens' programs in
order to continue low-cost health services. He also
argued that the younger minority-dominated work force,
including Latinos, needed to be supported by Congress
- especially if it was expected to pay for the public
benefits and programs for an increasingly aging
"If we don't invest in the Hispanic population today,
we will pay the consequences tomorrow," Roybal said in
an 1987 interview.
His devotion to seniors was recognized after he
retired from Congress when the Edward R. Roybal
Institute for Applied Gerontology was established at
Cal State Los Angeles. The program is designed to
educate physicians, nurses and community members about
how best to deliver health services to the aged.
He also supported AIDS research. In 1983, when the
Reagan administration said $17.6 million was enough to
finance the war on AIDS, Roybal helped obtain another
$8 million for the next year. Two years later, Roybal
proposed an increase of funding to $176 million, which
was eventually approved by Congress.
This did not sit well with some of his Eastside
"We would get calls from people who would say, 'What
are you doing? There are no gays in East L.A.' But he
didn't care. It was a health issue to him," recalled
Henry Lozano, another of Roybal's former chiefs of
staff. "He was ahead of the curve when it comes to
"He was a quiet groundbreaker," agreed Pachon, who is
now president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a
think tank at Claremont Graduate University. "Many of
his accomplishments go unrecognized because he did
things in a quiet way."
Knowing from his experience that it wasn't easy for a
Latino to win election in Southern California - his
own departure to Congress in 1962 created a void in
representation on the City Council that wouldn't be
filled for more than two decades, when then-Democratic
Assemblyman Richard Alatorre was elected to Roybal's
old seat in 1985 - Roybal extended a helping hand and
advice to many Latino politicians. Aspiring
officeholders sought an endorsement from "the Old
Man," knowing that a nod from Roybal could be a
decisive factor, especially with Latinos.
Among those who got a helping hand from Roybal in
launching their political careers were Molina, now
chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors;
Alatorre; state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres,
and Roybal's daughter.
He "paved the way for the next generation, just like
we're paving the way for the generation after us,"
Roybal-Allard, who represents parts of her father's
old district, told The Times in 1999. "But he was
really the pioneer."
In the 1970s, Roybal founded the National Assn. of
Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nationwide
research and civic action group for Latino lawmakers
across the U.S. NALEO now has more than 6,000 members.
He also co-founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,
serving as its first chairman.
Roybal has more buildings named after him than almost
any other Los Angeles politician, including a
comprehensive health center in East L.A. and a federal
building and courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Most
recently, the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention named its main campus in Atlanta after
Roybal was born Feb. 10, 1916, in Albuquerque, N.M.,
one of 10 children of Baudilio Sr., a carpenter, and
Eloisa Roybal. When he was a child, the family moved
to Boyle Heights, where he attended public schools and
graduated from Roosevelt High School.
During the Depression, Roybal was one of thousands of
young men who joined the New Deal's Civilian
Conservation Corps. He studied accounting at UCLA and
Southwestern University, then joined an accounting
firm, which sent him to a food-processing plant in
Vernon to help with the company's books. He later
became a public health educator with the California
Tuberculosis Assn. and, after serving in the Army
during World War II as an accountant for an infantry
unit, became one of the directors of health education
for the L.A. County Tuberculosis and Health Assn.
His work in the field prompted many friends on the
Eastside to urge Roybal to run for a seat on the L.A.
City Council, which he did in 1947, but he was
defeated. Two years later, he won the seat by
campaigning for more streetlights, better housing and
increased restraints on police.
Roybal attributed his victory to following the
principles of Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, who
preached that coalitions between similarly affected
groups should be forged for the common good. The
coalition Roybal forged was between Mexican Americans
and Jews, who both sought greater equity and an end to
It made sense for Roybal to reach out to Jews because
they were an integral part of life in Boyle Heights in
the years before and immediately after World War II.
He followed up this election strategy by helping to
establish, with Eastside activist Anthony P. Rios, the
Community Service Organization, which was a
partnership between Jews and Latinos on the Eastside
that conducted voter registration and get-out-the-vote
programs on Roybal's behalf.
As a congressman, Roybal frequently clashed with the
Immigration and Naturalization Service over what he
said was its uneven enforcement of the country's
immigration laws. He once gave a sharp tongue-lashing
to the normally glib Harold Ezell, then the INS'
regional commissioner for the West. Ezell said nothing
during Roybal's tirade, according to Lozano.
On another occasion, enraged over INS tactics in the
1980s, Roybal fumed: "Next to the IRS, the INS is the
most discourteous arm of the federal government."
In 1978, Roybal was reprimanded by his colleagues in
the House of Representatives after he admitted he had
lied about a $1,000 gift he received from South Korean
lobbyist Tongsun Park. The incident made no difference
to his constituents, who returned him to Congress that
year with 70% of the vote. Senior citizens were
particularly forgiving, especially after Roybal
explained that the $1,000 contribution - which he
claimed at the time came from an unknown donor - had
been used to buy tables for the elderly at a 1974
The congressman kept his hands in local politics,
advising and endorsing a number of Latinos who sought
elective office. When Molina, then a newcomer, sought
to succeed her boss, Torres, in the state Assembly in
1982, Roybal ignored the wishes of Alatorre, an
Eastside powerhouse in his own right, who supported
his own candidate for the seat. Molina won and
afterward counted on the Old Man as a key ally.
In 1991, Molina, with Roybal's endorsement, won
election to the county Board of Supervisors. With
unmistakable joy, Roybal attended Molina's swearing-in
ceremony as she became the first Mexican American to
sit on that body. Friends said later that Roybal
relished the moment of Molina's swearing-in because of
his own controversial loss to Debs.
Roybal retired from the House in early 1992. Xavier
Becerra, with Roybal's endorsement, won election in
the newly constituted 30th District, which included
half of Roybal's old 25th District.
Roybal missed a chance to serve in Congress alongside
his daughter, who was elected to the House in November
After he left Congress, Roybal continued his
involvement with issues affecting the elderly and with
politics, endorsing several local candidates. Among
those who won elections with his endorsement was Nick
Pacheco, who in 1999 was elected to Alatorre's seat on
the L.A. City Council.
Besides Roybal-Allard, Roybal is survived by his wife,
Lucille Beserra-Roybal; daughter Lillian Roybal-Rose;
son Edward Jr.; and several grandchildren.