Esteban Torres, a son from 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 labor leader who served in President Carter’s administration, Torres died Tuesday of natural causes, according to a statement from his family.
“Torres was a revolutionary public servant and a lifelong fighter for the common good,” US Senator Alex Padilla said in a statement. “Torres’ pride in his working-class and immigrant roots and his belief in the American Dream drove his dedication to labor activism and community organizing.”
Janet Murguia, President and CEO of UnidosUS, recalled working with Torres to protect workers and strengthen investments in border communities during debates on the North American Trade Freedom Agreement, the pact signed by Mexico, Canada and the United States.
“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 implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act 1986, which gave legal status to over 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 over a million other people of Mexican descent across the “Mexican Repatriation Program”, although many were US 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 eventually helped 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 Deputy Director for International Affairs and was appointed by President Carter as the United States Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris. . He also served as the 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 grew up.
In Washington, during his first term, Torres led the first comprehensive review of the BKK West Covina landfill, one of the most dangerous in the country. He also lobbied for an overhaul of the nation’s consumer credit reporting policies and helped draft legislation to ensure low-income victims of natural disasters receive full federal assistance.
Torres has also helped secure millions of dollars for transit projects in Los Angeles County and beyond. From 1989 to 1991, he was chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“I’ve 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, Arizona on January 27, 1930. In his father’s absence, he moved to East LA 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 release, 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 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 on the assembly line at Chrysler’s Maywood plant. It was there that he became active in the United Auto Workers union, rising rapidly 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 Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, he was one of the founders of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a downtown Los Angeles museum that explores the cultural influence of Latinos in the city .
“I knew years ago when I saw him in East LA he was talking about a Latin American or Mexican cultural hub, about how we were erased from history and the importance for us to tell our stories,” Molina said. “So when I was considering creating the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, he was definitely one of the first people I wanted to work with.”
Torres was also an accomplished artist, his work exhibited in galleries across Los Angeles and admired by his congressional colleagues.
In 2010, a newly built high school in East LA was named in his honor, an honor more often given after someone’s death. Torres enjoyed stopping on campus and talking about his rise from East LA to Congress.
In 2020, in recognition of his notable contributions to his community and service to Congress, Torres was awarded the UCLA Medal, the highest honor given to an individual by the university.
As part of a virtual tribute, he thanked those who nominated him for the award, including Xavier Becerra, now secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Becerra said he remembers running up the steps of the Capitol when he was a congressman and feeling Torres grab him by the shoulder. Look around you, Torres said.
Becerra said he noticed the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Thomas Jefferson Building.
“Xavier, never forget where you’re going to walk in, because very few Americans, especially those like us, have had that opportunity.”
Torres is survived by his wife, five children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.