As the lone voice for Hispanic Americans in the national political arena for decades, Dionisio Chavez knew all about overcoming obstacles. The third child of eight, he was born in the town of Los Chavez, in the U.S. territo¬ ry that later became the state of New Mexico.
When Chavez was seven, his family moved to Albuquerque and changed his given name to Dennis. Although he was an enthusiastic stu¬ dent, Chavez quit school in the eighth grade and took a job driving a grocery delivery wagon to help support the family.
Even though he’d left school, Chavez con¬ tinued to learn. He studied surveying and, in 1905, qualified for a job with the Albuquerque engineering department. He also continued to visit the library at night, reading up on politics and Thomas Jefferson, which were his two favorite subjects.
Chavez failed in his first attempt at public office, a run for county clerk. In 1916, he took a job as an interpreter for U.S. Senate candi¬ date Andrieus A. Jones. After Jones won his election, he offered Chavez a job as a senate clerk. Chavez took the job, and he entered Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., by passing a special entrance exam taken in lieu of a high school diploma.
In 1920, Chavez earned his bachelor of law degree from Georgetown. Then, he returned to Albuquerque to open a law prac¬ tice. He became active in local politics and was elected to the New Mexico House of Representatives. In 1930, Chavez ran for New Mexico’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He defeated the incumbent and was reelected two years later.
After two terms, Chavez set his sights on the U.S. Senate. In 1934, he ran against another incumbent, Senator Bronson Cutting, and lost by a narrow margin. One year later, Cutting was killed in a plane crash, and Chavez was appointed by the governor to replace him. Chavez was officially elected to retain the seat a year later. The voters reelected him five more times during his career, which lasted more than thirty years.
Throughout his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Chavez was a dedicated liberal and a tireless defender of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, farmers, and labor. For much of the time, he was the lone voice representing Mexican Americans in the national halls of government. He was frequently controversial and always independent.
Chavez is best known for his relentless cru¬ sade to create a federal Fair Employment Practices Commission, which would guarantee employees of government-contracted compa¬ nies that they could not be discriminated against because of their race, creed, color, or sex. Chavez did not succeed in passing such a bill during his lifetime, but the commission was eventually created in the 1960s.