Nuestra Historia - El Senador

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An icon in our state’s history, he remains among our foremost citizens. His bold achievements continue to affect the lives of every New Mexican, and his story is as relevant in Las Vegas as it is in Albuquerque’s south valley, or any other place in the Land of Enchantment.

He was the great Dennis Chavez, whose life-size bronze represents New Mexico in Statuary Hall in our nation’s Capitol, where he stands alongside  George Washington, Daniel Webster and Dwight Eisenhower.

His life story is of universal acclaim, and should continue to inspire everyone, young and old, and whether newcomer or  native, because he belongs to all New Mexicans, and nuestra historia is never complete unless you know El Senador.

When he died in 1962, Dennis Chavez was the fourth  most senior member of the U.S. Senate, where he was chairman of both the powerful Public Works committee, and the equally influential Defense Appropriations subcommittee.  

For many years he was the sole Hispanic and only ethnic minority in either body of Congress, and was the first since Reconstruction, to champion   civil rights legislation, all of which failed, but later paved the way for the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

He was among the first to courageously take to the Senate floor and publicly denounce Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his infamous communist witch hunts of the early 1950s.

His Senate seniority and committee chairmanships allowed him to bring to New Mexico, the large military  bases and scientific laboratories which are an integral part of our state, and vital to our economy.  

He advised three U.S. presidents, and was a member of President Truman’s kitchen cabinet, the five or six powerful men and close friends of the president, who advised him daily.

His signature trait was his genuine and exuding humility, always remarked upon by his contemporaries, and by historians and biographers alike.

Whenever his ancestral heritage was derided, El Senador politely responded with his famous rejoinder, universally  exclaimed by him for all Hispanic-Americans: “I was American before Plymouth Rock.”

At his funeral in Albuquerque in November 1962, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who served with Chavez in the Senate and admired him greatly, eulogized the humble man from Albuquerque’s barrios, and called him one of the nation’s greatest citizens.   (Only a year later Johnson would become president, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.)

Dionicio Chavez was born in 1888 in Los Chavez, a small community  between Belen and  Los Lunas in Valencia County.  When he was eight, the family  moved to Barelas, in Albuquerque’s south valley. By the time he was 13, Chavez had dropped out of school to help support the family, driving a grocery-delivery wagon. (In grade school, his name was Americanized to Dennis, a common practice at the time.)

Though he left school very young, Chavez acquired an earnest discipline for self-education, and became a voracious reader. He quickly mastered English, and  was always  known for his extraordinary command of both Spanish and English, and his mesmerizing oratory in either language.

In 1916, Chavez  was hired as campaign interpreter for Andrieus A. Jones, who was the Democratic candidate for  U.S. Senator. Jones won the election and was so taken with the 28-year-old Chavez that he took him to Washington. (Jones was a Las Vegas attorney and former mayor of East Las Vegas. He lived at 1021 Fifth Street, and came to Las Vegas from Indiana in 1885.)    

While in Washington, with no formal education nor even a high school diploma, Chavez  passed the entrance exam to the prestigious Georgetown University law school, from which he graduated in 1920.  (Chavez himself would later take many young New Mexicans to Washington, where they too would attend law school at Georgetown, and become leaders in their own right, among them Joseph M. Montoya and Tiny Martinez.)

Chavez was first elected to Congress in 1930, in a statewide election when New Mexico had only one congressman. In 1932 he was re-elected, defeating Republican Jose E. Armijo of Las Vegas. (Armijo was the younger brother of San Miguel County political boss and legendary district judge Luis E. Armijo, who with his brother-in-law, Lorenzo Delgado, succeeded to the Romero political machine when Secundino Romero died in 1929.)     

In 1934 Chavez ran for the U.S. Senate, and election results  showed he had lost to incumbent Republican Bronson Cutting by a mere 1,261 votes statewide. Chavez challenged the election, contesting only San Miguel County, where he claimed the election was stolen from him by the Delgado-Armijo Republican machine, and that 1,616 ballots were cast here illegally.  

That story is next, as we continue with the life of Dennis Chavez.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian.  He may be reached at 425-3730.