Trailblazer Eligio "Kika" De La Garza II, the first Mexican American to represent the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in Congress and former House Agriculture Committee chairman, has died. He was 89.
De La Garza, a Democrat, was a founding member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and served in the U.S. House from 1965 to 1997, a service that began with Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office and ended with Bill Clinton in the presidency.
Only the second Mexican American from Texas elected to the House at the time, De La Garza became a force in the politics of agriculture because of his long tenure on the powerful House Agriculture Committee. He rose to wield the gavel as the committee's chairman.
His death drew condolences from across the political realm, including from former President Bill Clinton who tweeted about their friendship.
Condolences came from Rio Grande Valley communities and from people who knew him in many different roles.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, whose district is in the heart of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said in a tweet that he had served as an intern for de la Garza.
"It played a major role in my decision to run for Congress," Vela said in another tweet.
Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, who represents Texas Congressional District 15 as Garza did, told the McAllen Monitor "the Rio Grande Valley has lost a statesman, public servant, husband, father, grandfather and friend, but his legacy will live on."
A Korean War veteran, De la Garza had been a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving with the 37th Division Artillery. He also had served in the Navy from 1945 to 1946. After the Korean War, he earned a law degree from St. Mary's University in San Antonio, according to U.S. House historical archives.
He was born in Mercedes, Texas and lived much of his life in Mission, Texas. HIs family had lived in Texas since the 18th century and had been Spanish land grantees. His political career began in the Texas legislature where among other things, he helped establish the first English language instruction for preschool children, according to the archives.
As Agriculture Committee chairman he presided over the tense negotiations to craft 1981 farm legislation and defended farm subsidies and other agricultural funding.
In Texas, particularly in the Rio Grande Valley de la Garza is memorialized in the names of buildings, schools, streets, scholarships. Nationally, there is a USDA fellowship connected with Hispanic Serving Institutions that bears his name.
Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, said de la Garza is one of the "exceptional Texans" who inspired his career in public service.
"I am very saddened to learn of Kika de la Garza's passing ... De la Garza consistently stood up for marginalized people in our nation and supported historic civil rights legislation that propelled important progress in our society. A son of the Valley, he deeply understood U.S.-Mexico relations and helped foster closer, more constructive ties between our nations," Castro said.