Esteban Torres, L.A. congressman who championed Latino rights, dies at 91

Esteban Torres, a son of East Los Angeles who emerged from the Chicano civil rights movement to become an eight-term congressman who pushed for social and economic change to help empower Latinos, has died at 91.

A former union leader who served in President Carter’s administration, Torres died of natural causes Tuesday, according to a family statement.

“Torres was a pathbreaking public servant and a lifelong fighter for the common good,” U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla said in a statement. “Torres’ pride in his working-class, immigrant roots and his belief in the American dream drove his dedication to labor activism and community organizing.”

Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of UnidosUS, recalled working with Torres to protect workers and enhance investment in border communities during the debates over the North American Freedom Trade Agreement, the pact signed by Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

“From the moment he took office, he made improving the lives of Hispanics in our country a top priority,” she said. “He played a crucial role in both the passage and later the implementation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave legal status to more than 3 million people.”

As a child, Torres lived in a camp in Arizona where his father worked in the copper mines.

Eventually, the elder Torres was deported along with more than a million other people of Mexican descent through the “Mexican Repatriation program,” even though many were U.S. citizens.

Torres never saw his father again.

Early in his activism, Torres advocated for workers rights as a labor organizer and leader of the United Auto Workers union, which would eventually help launch his political career.

He was also an anti-poverty activist. In 1968, he co-founded the East Los Angeles Community Union, a community development organization, his family said. He served as its executive director until 1974 when he first ran for Congress, a race he lost.

Torres returned to the UAW as its assistant director for international affairs and was appointed by President Carter as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. He also served as a White House special assistant for Hispanic Affairs until the end of Carter’s term.

The following year, he was elected to Congress, where he served eight terms representing the then-newly drawn 34th Congressional District, which included much of East Los Angeles, where he was raised.

In Washington, during his first term, Torres spearheaded the first comprehensive examination of West Covina’s BKK Landfill, one of the nation’s most hazardous. He also pushed for an overhaul of the country’s consumer credit reporting policies and helped draft legislation to ensure that low-income victims of natural disasters received full federal assistance.

Torres also helped secure millions of dollars for public transit projects in Los Angeles County and beyond. From 1989 until 1991, he was chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

“I have reached the pinnacle of success in my own eyes,” Torres told The Times when he retired in 1999. “It’s time to let the younger generation succeed.”

Esteban Edward Torres was born in Miami, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 1930. In his father’s absence, he moved to East L.A. with his mother and grandmother. After graduating from Garfield High School, he enlisted in the Army and served in the Corps of Engineers during the Korean War.

After his discharge, Torres continued his education, attending the Los Angeles Art Center, East Los Angeles Community College and then Cal State Los Angeles. He also took graduate level courses at the University of Maryland in economics and the American University in Washington.

In 1955 he married Arcy Sanchez and started a family. To support his growing family, he worked the assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Maywood. It was here where he became active in the United Auto Workers union, rising quickly through the ranks.

After retiring from Congress, Torres served on the California Transportation Commission and was a visiting professor at Whittier College and UCLA.

Along with former L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he was a founder of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum in downtown Los Angeles that explores the cultural influence of Latinos in the city.

“I knew that years ago when I had seen him in East L.A. he talked about a Latino or Mexican American cultural center, how we were erased in history and how it was important for us to tell our stories,” Molina said. “So when I was looking into putting together the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, he was certainly one of the first ones I wanted to work with.”

Torres also was an accomplished artist, his work displayed at galleries throughout Los Angeles, and admired by his colleagues in Congress.

In 2010, a newly built high school in East L.A. was named for him, an honor more often bestowed after someone has died. Torres enjoyed stopping by the campus and speaking about his rise from East L.A. to Congress.

In 2020, in recognition for his notable contributions to his community and his service in Congress, Torres received the UCLA Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by the university.

As part of a virtual tribute, he thanked those who had nominated him for the award, including Xavier Becerra, now secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Becerra said he recalled running up the steps of the Capitol when he was a congressmen and feeling Torres grab him by the shoulder. Look around, Torres said.

Becerra said he noticed the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Thomas Jefferson Building.

“Xavier, never forget where you’re about to enter, because very few Americans especially those like us, have ever had that opportunity.”

Torres is survived by his wife, five children, 12 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

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