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Hispanic American Trailblazers

13 men and women who made history in the U.S. government

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which has been officially observed since 1988, we honor Hispanic men and women who had the courage to break barriers within the government and military. Here’s a snapshot of some of these trailblazers.

First Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
and first Governor

Romualdo Pacheco

Pacheco was elected to represent Southern California in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1876. Born in California when it was still a Mexican territory, he emerged as an early leader when California joined the union. Pacheco was also the nation’s first Hispanic governor. Elected as California’s lieutenant governor in 1871, he became governor in 1875 following the resignation of Governor Newton Booth.

Pacheco’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times said, “We have public men who might well copy in some measure the pose of mind, the calm dignity, the graceful honesty and gentle manliness of Romualdo Pacheco.”

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First U.S. Senator:

Octaviano Larrazolo

In 1928, Larrazolo was sworn in as a U.S. senator for New Mexico. Born in Mexico, he immigrated to the United States at age 10 to attend school. He rose to prominence during New Mexico’s transition to statehood, fighting to ensure that Hispanics and Native citizens had equal rights in the new state’s constitution. Larrazolo also served as New Mexico’s governor from 1919 to 1921.

In his 1919 inaugural address as governor, Larrazolo said, “In the land of the Stars and Stripes there are no privileged classes — the avenues to place and distinction are open equally to you all.”

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First Federal Judge:

Reynaldo Garza

Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants, was nominated in 1961 to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas by President John F. Kennedy. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where he served until his death in 2004.

“On the bench, you’re colorblind and don't know whether a man’s rich or poor,” Garza said in a 1982 interview. “If we’re true to our oath, we can’t let those things interfere with truth and justice.”

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First U.S. Ambassador:

Raymond Telles

President John F. Kennedy appointed Telles as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica in 1961. A Texan of Mexican descent, he is also recognized as the first Hispanic American to be mayor of a major American city. He served as mayor of El Paso, Texas, from 1957 to 1961.

In a 1982 interview, Telles recalled why he accepted the ambassadorial post: “I felt that I was in a position to help my people, that I really had the opportunity being the first Mexican American to be named … here I was an ambassador opening up the way for other people to be appointed.”

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First U.S. Army General:

Richard E. Cavazos

Cavazos, a Texan of Mexican descent, was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. He retired in 1984 as a four-star general. During his distinguished 33 years in the U.S. Army, he received several awards including two Distinguished Service Crosses, one for heroism in Korea, the other in Vietnam. His brother Lauro F. Cavazos Jr. captured another first: He was the first Hispanic American cabinet secretary, serving as secretary of education from 1988 to 1990.

“I value courage, not battlefield courage. This is the courage to meet each and every single day,” Cavazos told a group of high school students in 1989. “There are no dreams you dare not dream. There is no storm that you cannot weather.”

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First Female U.S. Ambassador:

Mari-Luci Jaramillo

Jaramillo, a native of New Mexico, was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter. Prior to her diplomatic post, she worked as a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Education.

“The most rewarding aspect of being an ambassador was promoting democracy and human rights across the world,” Jaramillo said in 2019. “You have influence, you have power ... one can choose that unbridled power to help others or to help yourself in your career. I chose to help others.”

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First Female Federal Judge:

Carmen Consuelo Cerezo

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Cerezo to serve as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican born and raised, Cerezo served on the bench for 40 years, retiring in February 2021.

In a 2019 interview in San Juan, Cerezo recalled what it meant to be appointed as the first Hispanic woman in the federal judiciary: “It was a breakthrough, and it was a step in the right direction of diversity and of inclusion. And it was a crack … the male dominance of the judiciary was cracked.”

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First Cabinet Secretary:

Lauro F. Cavazos Jr.

Cavazos, a Texan of Mexican descent, was secretary of education from 1988 to 1990, serving under two presidents: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Before his cabinet position, he was a professor of medicine at Tufts University and then president of Texas Tech University. His brother Richard E. Cavazos captured another first: He was the first Hispanic American to attain the rank of general in the U.S. Army.

“Diversity is what comes from the strength of different people bringing their wisdom and culture to one place,” Cavazos said in a 2017 interview with his alma mater, Texas Tech.

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First Female member in the U.S. House of Representatives: 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

In 1989, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to represent her South Florida district in the U.S. House of Representatives. She served 30 years, retiring in 2019. Fleeing the Castro regime, Ros-Lehtinen’s family immigrated to Florida from Cuba in 1959.

“I came here without knowing a word of English,” Ros-Lehtinen said in an interview in 1999. “That I’m now a member of Congress says a lot more about the United States of America than it does about me. This really is the land of opportunity.”

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First Female Cabinet Secretary:

Hilda L. Solis

Solis served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of labor from 2009 until 2013. Prior to her cabinet appointment, Solis had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the California state legislature. She is the daughter of immigrants from Nicaragua and Mexico and grew up in Los Angeles County.

“My parents came to this country as immigrants and taught me my values and commitment to issues of justice and equality,” said Solis upon accepting a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 2000. “They told me to fight for what I believed in and to never give up. I attribute my success to them.”

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First U.S. Supreme Court Justice:

Sonia Sotomayor

In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sotomayor as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. She is the third woman and first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. She previously served as a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Sotomayor is from the Bronx, New York, and of Puerto Rican descent.

In her 2014 memoir, Sotomayor wrote: “Experience has taught me that you cannot value dreams according to the odds of their coming true. Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire.”

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First Female Governor:

Susana Martinez

Martinez was governor of New Mexico from 2011 to 2019. Born and raised in Texas in a Mexican American family, she has spent her adult life in New Mexico, working as a prosecutor for 25 years — including 14 years as district attorney for New Mexico’s Third District.

“Growing up, I never imagined a girl from a border town could one day become a governor,” said Martinez in a speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. “But this is America y en América todo es posible” (in America anything is possible).

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First Female U.S. Senator:

Catherine Cortez Masto

In 2016, Nevada elected Cortez Masto to the U.S. Senate. A native Nevadan from Las Vegas, she is of Mexican and Italian heritage. Prior to serving in the Senate, she was Nevada’s attorney general from 2007 to 2015.

“Like women all over the country, I have benefitted from those who worked so determinedly to expand the possibilities for women in politics,” wrote Cortez Masto in a 2020 feature for the National Museum of American History. “And as the first Latina in the U.S. Senate, I feel a responsibility to open the door wider for those who follow.”

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