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FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani
FCC Hispanic Heritage Celebration
September 16, 1999

When I was asked to give the FCC's Hispanic Heritage remarks, I thought I'd give the usual speech loaded with numbers and statistics about Hispanics in our country today. Or I'd talk about the future and how Hispanics will be this country's largest minority in a number of years. Or I'd talk about what we as Hispanics need to work and strive for in order that our familias, and for that matter all our American familias, succeed in the 21st Century.

Instead, I decided, that this being a celebration of our Hispanic Heritage, I would like to look back to a role model that has shaped my life and the lives of many in our country. I'd like to spend a little time talking to you about mi abuelo, my grandfather, the late United States Senator Dennis Chavez, a democrat who represented the State of New Mexico in Congress for 32 years. I'd like to tell you about his life and his enduring legacy.

There is a statue of my grandfather in the Capitol here in Washington. The statue is located next to the Old Senate Chamber. I have to tell you I visit the statue and rub my grandfather's shoes anytime I'm on Capitol Hill. His statue has an inscription in English, Spanish and Navajo. The Spanish portion reads "Dejo este Se¤or una vereda trazada que nunca se olvidara. Lo hizo con la esperanza que otros la sigan." Loosely translated it means "he left a mark that will never be forgotten in the hopes that others would follow." I'd like to tell you about the mark of this extraordinary Hispanic American and about the relevance of his life to our lives today.

Senator Chavez was born in 1888 in the village of Los Chavez in the lower Rio Grande Valley in the territory of New Mexico. His parents, David and Paz Chavez, were poor but hardworking farmers, who in 1895, moved their family to Albuquerque in search of better jobs and schools for their family. At the age of 13 and after finishing 7th grade, he quit school to go work and help support his family. He didn't go to high school or college, but educated himself by reading at the public library in Albuquerque. He particularly liked to read American history and Thomas Jefferson. He taught himself how to be a surveyor and worked as an assistant engineer for the City of Albuquerque. In 1916, by then married to Imelda Espinosa, he moved his family to Washington D.C., where he worked for Senator A. A. Jones. While in Washington, he passed a special entrance examination to Georgetown Law School and received his law degree in 1920.

He then moved back to Albuquerque, where he practiced law successfully and was elected to the State Legislature in 1923. Chavez introduced the first bill to provide free textbooks to the school children of New Mexico. In 1930 he was elected, and in 1932 he was reelected to the United States House of Representatives. In 1934 he tried to defeat the Republican U.S. Senator Bronson Cutting, but was unsuccessful; he was appointed to the seat after Cutting died in a plane crash in 1935. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1936 and reelected in 1940, 1946, 1952 and 1958. He was the first native born Hispanic to serve, and one of only three Hispanics ever to serve, in the U.S. Senate. He died in office on November 19, 1962.

At the time of this death, Chavez was 4th in seniority and was chairman of the most powerful subcommittee of the U.S. Senate the one that set the appropriations for the national defense. During his tenure as a Senator, he supported New Deal Programs, introduced bills to protect Indian lands, and promoted Indian self-sufficiency, citizenship and voting rights. He was an advocate for national education measures and equal rights for women. He was a tireless champion for tolerance, human rights, civil rights and racial equality. From 1945 to 1948, he tried unsuccessfully to pass the Fair Employment Practices Bill, the precursor to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I can't give you a detailed description of all of my grandfather's accomplishments but I would like to give you a sense of what drove this humble Hispanic-American from the Rio Grande Valley to the halls of power of the United States Senate and more importantly how he used that power. If there was one characteristic that drove Chavez, it was courage. It took tremendous courage to aspire to public office coming from a humble background, lacking a formal education, and as a Hispanic in a political world dominated by the majority. It took tremendous courage, once elected to the House, to run against a rich and powerful incumbent in the Senate. It took tremendous courage, once a powerful member of the U.S. Senate, to strive again and again for equality for all Americans, starting with equal opportunity in the workplace.

But those kinds of battles were a natural for Dennis Chavez. Because he believed fundamentally in the principles of decency, fairness, and equality for all Americans, including for Hispanic Americans. I'd like to read from a speech he gave almost 50 years ago appealing to his colleagues to support the Fair Practices Employment Bill:

It [FEPC] is not being offered in the interest of the
Democratic Party or in the interest of the Republican
Party. It is being offered in the interest of America,
and in the interest of fairness and decency. If the
Constitution is worth anything, if the Declaration of
Independence is worth anything, if the boys who died
on the field of battle did not die in vain, fair
employment practices are correct and necessary.
Sometime ago the Congressional Medal of Honor
was awarded to a boy from my section of the country
who died at Attu. His name was Joe Martinez. The
Congressional Medal of Honor is not awarded
indiscriminately . . . . That boy died in Attu. We
should examine the records of the War Department.
Some boys who were told to go would not go. But
this so-called Mexican from Colorado did go . . . .
Nevertheless, his brother or his uncles or some other
relative of his could not get a job . . . because his
name is Martinez. We give Martinez a medal for
dying, but we refuse a job to his relative or to his
friend. Then we complain, and we wish to cut out an
appropriation, because a committee selected by the
President is attempting to rectify such an un-
American condition.

So, Mr. President, what is wrong with the fair
employment practice bill? The bill does not provide
that because a man's name is Levine or Petachelli,
he is entitled to a job. However, the bill does provide
that a man cannot be kept from having a job because
his name is Petachelli, or Garcia, or something else.
It is most regrettable that some persons think that it
was all well and good to use such men and call upon
them to make the supreme sacrifice in foreign fields,
to land on a deadly beach at Okinawa or Guam or
elsewhere, but that they are not good enough to
receive equal treatment in our country . . . . These
boys did not die in vain . . . . The Democratic Party
owes them too much, the Congress owes them too
much, ever to permit that to be said. Believe me, Mr.
President, the American people are fair and just, and
they wish to act fairly and justly.

Are those words relevant today? Well, you may recall that not too long ago three young American soldiers were captured in Macedonia and held in captivity in Yugoslavia for 32 days. You may recall their names were: Christopher Stone, Andrew Ramirez and Steven Gonzales. You will recall their faces on television. You will recall our collective relief when they were released from captivity. We hailed and hail them as our heroes. We honored them with Purple Hearts and five other medals.

But, while we still give medals to our young Hispanics for their heroism and valor, some say we don't have to worry about equal opportunity and fairness because Hispanics and other minorities have arrived. The numbers simply don't bear that out. In many fields, Hispanics are woefully absent or insignificant. And, as we know much too well at the FCC, few Hispanics are employed in the upper levels of the broadcasting industry and even fewer are owners of broadcasting properties.

Chavez was not afraid to use his position or his power to fight discrimination. The story goes that during World War II, the city of Roswell, a small city in the Southeastern part of New Mexico, would not allow a young Mexican girl into the Municipal Swimming Pool. Chavez heard about it and he called the Mayor. And he told him "Open the swimming pools and all the public facilities to everybody in Roswell or Walker Air Force will not be funded." And guess what? The swimming pools were opened to all. The golf course was opened to all.

Chavez, was also never afraid to speak out, even on unpopular issues. In 1950 he was one of the first Senators to speak out against Senator Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt. It was not a popular thing to do. The McCarthy era was a period described as one where "demagogues with no regard for truth or constitutional principles were indulging in widespread character assassination." I'd like to quote from my grandfather's remarks on the Senate floor on May 12th, 1950:

I should like to be remembered as the man who
raised a voice and I devoutly hope not a voice in
the wilderness at a time in the history of this body
when we seem bent upon placing limitations on the
freedom of the individual. I would consider all of the
legislation which I have supported meaningless if I
were to sit idly by, silent, during a period which may
go down in history as an era when we permitted the
curtailment of our liberties, a period when we quietly
shackled the growth of men's minds.

It matters little if the Congress appropriates hundreds
of millions of dollars to check the erosion of the soil if
we permit the erosion of our civil liberties, free
institutions, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth.

Mr. President, I am referring to the current attempt to
establish tests and criteria for the patriotism of U.S.
citizens, the attempt to evaluate Americans by the
political beliefs they hold. And I am deeply
concerned lest the consequences of these attempts
lead to the control of our acts and of our thoughts,
and ultimately to the destruction of our entire
democratic way of life.

Chavez's speech encouraged others to speak out as well and it was the beginning of the end of the witch-hunt. In analyzing why Chavez decided to speak out when so many had been silent, Paul Porter said in part, and I quote, that "Senator Chavez cared deeply about his country and its basic charter our Constitution . . . . Injustice and abuse of individual rights were too repugnant to his philosophy for him to stand mute in its presence."

So Senator Chavez was a man of tremendous courage, who spoke for equality and fairness and against discrimination and bigotry. And he had the courage to speak out even when his voice was the lone one, because it was the right thing to do. What lessons can we learn from such a life and what relevance does it have to our world today?

I can tell you how its guided my actions as a public servant and a human being. I've learned that there can be no greater goals than a commitment to equality equal treatment, equal opportunity, equal education for all Americans no matter their race, their sex, their origin. I'd like to be able to tell you that America has come far enough, at the close of this century, that we don't need to be concerned about equality and fairness for all Americans. I'd like to tell you that discrimination and bigotry are things of the past. But if I told you that, I wouldn't be talking about America in 1999.

I wouldn't be talking about the America where hate/racist radio seems to thrive. I wouldn't be talking about the America where a nationally syndicated radio programming show ran this past August that was demeaning to Hispanic Americans. This twelve minute segment had the show hosts (two males) telephoning a Hispanic American female and subjecting her to about 10 minutes of hateful, racist, bigoted, demeaning verbal abuse.

Now you might suggest, and rightfully so, that our First Amendment protects speech even when its hateful, racist, bigoted or demeaning. But I would argue that we need to exercise our First Amendment right to speak out against speech that is hateful, racist, bigoted or demeaning to Hispanics. We need to exercise our First Amendment right and speak out against speech that is hateful, racist, bigoted or demeaning to African-Americans. We need to exercise our First Amendment right to speak out against speech that is hateful, racist, bigoted or demeaning to anyone.

Dennis Chavez's mark, his commitment to fairness and equality, and his courage to speak up should continue to guide us all. I am told the Navajo inscription on the Chavez statue means "We have lost our voice our voice is gone forever." We need to make sure our voice nuestra voz lives on.