It is with profound sadness that we learned of the passing of former Rep. Bob García of New York. The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) worked closely with Rep. García during his tenure in Congress on education, civil rights and immigration, among other issues. Congressman García leaves behind a rich legacy, including his willingness to work with both sides of the aisle, as well as his pioneering work in helping to unite the Latino community with his tireless efforts in getting fellow Puerto Rican elected officials deeply involved in the immigration issue.
In so many ways, the Latino community is living out Congressman García’s legacy every single day. We see it in the impassioned advocacy of Reps. Luis Gutiérrez, José Serrano and Nydia Velázquez, three Puerto Rican members of Congress who have become great champions of immigrants throughout the country. We see it in the Latino organizations that have embraced solutions from all over the political spectrum to help our community’s challenges, which began when Rep. Garcia teamed with Rep. Jack Kemp, a conservative Republican from upstate New York, to create ‘enterprise zones’ in cities to help alleviate poverty and create opportunity (now called ‘empowerment zones’). And we see it in the way that Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and people from the Caribbean and Central and South America have come together as the Latino community, a unity García championed long before many others when he helped build the Congressional Hispanic Caucus into an institution as its second chair.
But there are parts of García’s legacy we wish were more prominent in today’s America. The hallmark of his career and work was always an immense decency, generosity, compassion, empathy, and an unwavering commitment to opportunity, equality and justice. His district had few immigrants but he and the late Rep. Ed Roybal led the fight for the Hispanic community during the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), literally camping out at the conference committee in 1986—which had no Latino members on it—to ensure the survival of key amendments that helped immigrants. Thanks to their leadership, IRCA helped legalize nearly three million undocumented immigrants. Although he was a proud liberal Democrat, he often worked with conservative Democrats and Republicans. He was equally adept at crossing racial lines: many may not realize that he spearheaded the congressional push to make Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, a crusade on which he never gave up even though it took nearly a decade.
He was at his core open-minded, open-hearted and could make friends with anyone, from his constituents in the South Bronx who saw him as their only hope, to the rural, conservative Republican members of the Congressional Prayer Group he joined later in life. On a personal note, I will always remember and be grateful for his generous offers to provide advice and counsel when I started at NCLR, something he did with countless others in the next generation of Hispanic leaders. Our deepest condolences go out his wife Jane, his family, and the many who will miss him dearly.
Janet Murguia is the President and CEO of the National Council of La Raza.