Former Rep. Esteban Torres, a California Democrat who served eight terms in the House and built a legacy of public service focused on advancing Latino representation, died on Tuesday. He was 91.
“His work was profoundly influential in the nation and Latino community," Ricardo Lara, president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said in a statement, "and he helped pave the way for many Latinos to serve as public officials — himself being one of the most prolific in American history.”
In a family statement provided to The Press-Telegram, family members say Torres died of natural causes on Jan. 25, two days before his 92nd birthday. He represented the San Gabriel Valley and Whittier area in Congress from 1983 to 1999, joining a class of Congress that doubled Latino representation.
Torres chaired various congressional subcommittees, including Finance and Urban Affairs and Banking and Small Business. He also chaired the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and was delegated deputy whip by Democratic leadership. Torres helped pass landmark legislation such as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave legal status to more than 3 million people.
Before his political career, Torres served as an activist in his United Auto Workers (UAW) Union branch, later serving as the UAW’s international representative in Washington from 1964 to 1968. He helped found The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), one of the nation’s largest antipoverty agencies. In 1977, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“His life of public service and many, many accomplishments are a reflection of, and matched by, his character,” Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, said in a statement. “He was a gracious, kind, dignified, and gentle man for whom belief in civility, love of country, and reaching out to and working with everyone—including those he disagreed with—was not just lip service but who he was at his core.”
After leaving politics, Torres pursued his passion for art through painting and sculpting and was an early advocate for a national Latino museum.
Torres was born in Miami, Arizona. When he was 5 years old, his father was deported to Mexico and he never saw him again. His mother, Rena Gómez, and his younger brother, Hugo, relocated to East Los Angeles in 1936; Torres graduated from James A. Garfield High School in 1949.
Torres served in the U.S. Army from 1949 to 1953 and fought in the Korean War. In 1955, he married Arcy Sanchez, who survives him, along with his five children: Carmen, Rena, Camille, Selina and Esteban.