Oral Histories

Interview of Esteban Torres

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for southeastern Los Angeles County and organizer for the United Automobile Workers union. The United States ambassador to UNESCO, and special assistant to the president for Hispanic affairs.
Mexican American Civil Rights Pioneers: Historical Roots of an Activist Generation
Latina and Latino History
Biographical Note:
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for southeastern Los Angeles County and organizer for the United Automobile Workers union. The United States ambassador to UNESCO, and special assistant to the president for Hispanic affairs.
Espino, Virginia
Torres, Esteban
Persons Present:
Torres and Espino.
Place Conducted:
Torres's home in West Covina, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Virginia Espino Program Coordinator for Latina and Latino History, UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research; B.A., psychology, UC Santa Cruz; Ph.D., history, Arizona State University.Espino prepared for the interview by researching the microfilm collection of the Eastside Sun housed at the East Los Angeles Public Library. The Historical Los Angeles Times database was consulted along with various secondary sources about Mexican Americans in the Southwest and Chicano history, politics, and civic life.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Torres was then given an opportunity to review the transcript and made a few corrections and additions. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research staff.
17 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The purpose of this series is to document the social justice activism of the Mexican American generation and to explore family and community life in war-time Los Angeles. Individuals selected for this series resided in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s and began their civic participation prior to 1960. Represented groups include a wide range of activists, including labor, political, and educational activists. Their combined experience underscores war-time community life and outlines the historical precursors to the Chicano Movement.
Early family history; Great grandfather's arrival in North America; Family's migratory experience; Parents' meeting; Father's repatriation to Mexico in 1933; Suspicion that father was repatriated for union activity; Repercussions from father's repatriation; Family life after migration to Los Angeles; Influence of grandmother and mother on identity; Childhood neighborhood; Father's alcoholism; Grandmother's stern discipline; Depression era culture and life on relief; Mother's choice to give brother up for adoption because of economic conditions; Reuniting with brother after 20 years; Father's life history learned through ancestry work; Consequences of United States immigration policies; Mother's employment with the Works Project Administration (WPA); Childhood home in Clifton, Arizona; Picking quelites and other childhood memories; Relationship with brother after father's death; Elementary education in Arizona; Strong English and artistic skills in school; Traumatic childhood experience; Mother demands apology from teacher; Mother's appreciation for labor union; Junior high and high school experiences; Desire to be a scientist; Tracking in high school leads to lack of interest and cutting class; Winning entry into a high school aerodynamics class; Learning to fly a plane in high school; Illustrating book for aerodynamics teacher and not receiving credit nor a thank you.
Interest in Native American culture and socio-political dynamics of Clifton, Arizona; Involvement in Woodcraft Rangers as a child; Emulating Native American culture through Woodcraft Ranger group; Benefit of Boy Scout experience while in the Army; Attitudes towards Mexicans while in the military; Experience of racism towards African Americans while in Washington DC; Experience with integration of the military; African American family in the neighborhood; Ethnic make-up of childhood community; Internment of Japanese American family in the neighborhood; Friendship with a Molokai family living in the neighborhood; Sense of harmony in childhood neighborhood; Avoiding gang involvement growing up; Forming the club Tea Timers while in high school; Grandmother changes name from Esteban to Edward; Changing name back to Esteban during the Chicano Movement; Developing a political ideology during military service; Working in recognizance while stationed in Germany; Hand drawing training aids for military on Russian life, culture, and society; Impact of the Cold War while stationed in Germany; Desire to become a teacher; Developing a relationship with wife, Arci Torres; First job at Chrysler Corporation; Encounters with Russians and Germans while in the military; Facing a Russian tank; Support for Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist position; First experience with the concept of a closed shop; United Auto Workers (UAW) newspaper, The Feather Merchant; Becoming a blue-button, rank-and-file representative; Negotiating with workers and management; Introduction to class consciousness and the Communist Manifesto; Introduction to Leftist politics; Chrysler purges suspected Communist employees.
A day in the Chrysler Plant; Spot welding; Dangers of the hot molten lead process on the assembly line; Line speed regulation on the assembly line; Management/subordinate tensions; Time and motion theory; Experience with work stoppages; Challenges faced as the chief shop steward; Negotiating management/worker conflict; Working with hazardous materials; Encounters with Communist union members; Developing a worker-centered consciousness and a desire to take on a leadership role in the United Auto Workers (UAW) union; Political divisions in the UAW; Walter Reuther family history; Walter Reuther rises to power in the UAW; History of Communist purges in auto plants; Joining the Democratic Party; Winning office as Chairman of the Political Action and Education Committee for Local 230; Learning about leftist politics and finding a balance with socialist and democratic ideals; Role of the Political Action and Education Committee; Walking precincts for an African American candidate; Discovering Watts Towers while precinct walking; UAW summer school camp in Asilomar, California; Being recruited by Walter Reuther for a leadership position in the UAW; Hierarchy of the UAW; Working for George Brown's 1963 campaign for United States Congress; Attending a Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) conference and meeting Paul Schrade; Arci Torres demands a leadership role in the UAW for Esteban Torres; Becoming an international representative for Region 6 of the UAW; Organizing unorganized workers; Working by day and attending college by night.
Role of the left in nurturing leadership; Communist purges in a Los Angeles auto plant; Nikita Khrushchev visits labor organizers; Walter Reuther purges communists; Jay Lovestone's anti-Communism; Experiencing red-baiting; Position on the role of the Communist Party for United States auto workers; Confronting Soviet Bloc labor organizers while an international labor organizer in Latin America; Different organizing approaches with U.S. labor organizers and Soviet Bloc organizers; Harassment by foreign military apparatus in South America; Challenges in teaching worker's rights in Latin America; Encounters with a young Lula de Silva, then a member of the Latin American Worker's Party; Accusation of labor agitation in Argentina; Helping Latin American workers win safety protections; Role of the union in United States history; Causes for the decline in United States union membership; Consequences of outsourcing; Congressional role in Social Security reform; Relationship with Hilda Solis; Concern for environmental protections in West Covina; Issues of concern while in Congress; Congressional challenge of the United States-imposed Cuba economic embargo; Meeting Fidel Castro; Impressions of Fidel Castro.
Role as a staff member of the United Auto Workers International union; Labor's role in fighting a Communist build-up in Europe; Labor and the Central Intelligence Agency connection; The American Institute for Free Labor Development; the United States and the American labor movement's role in toppling foreign governments; Experience in Argentina with Augusto Vandor; Working with the Unión Obrera Metalurjíca during a military dictatorship; Success in organizing Latin American workers; Importance of time and motion theory for Argentine workers; Relationship with Argentine labor leader Dirk Kustermann; Latin American assassinations; Plan de Lucha march; Weary of United States labor ideologues in Latin America; United States leadership grant for Lula de Silva; Relationship with Paul Schrade; Paul Schrade's support of Cesar Chavez; Paul Schrade's role in community development; Bridging United States labor activism and Mexican labor activism; Creating a North American Automotive Council; Encounters with the Kennedys; Criticism of Paul Schrade for his support of Bobby Kennedy; Assassination of Bobby Kennedy; Paul Schrade's concern with who killed Bobby Kennedy; United Auto Workers' support of community endeavors.
Impressions of Walter Reuther and his union leadership; Impressions of Paul Schrade; Inequities in the United States labor movement; Founding of The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU); Reflections on the Kennedy-Javits economic impact zones; The birth of community unions; Modeling TELACU after Latin American union community services; Creating a community union; TELACU as a model of people owning the means of production; Creating businesses that would support TELACU through capital formation; Lost congressional race; Anti-Vietnam War sentiment in the Chicano community; Leadership role in the Congress of Mexican American Unity; Wins leadership of the Congress of Mexican American Unity against Bert Corona; Dynamics of the Congress of Mexican American Unity; Meeting with the police prior to the Moratorium march; Gang members oppose Chicano Moratorium activism; Star studded fundraiser for the Congress of Mexican American Unity; Mexican American community anti-war position; Aftermath of the August 29 Chicano Moratorium; The inquest hearing at the Hall of Justice; Marching in the 16 de septiembre parade in East Los Angeles; Movement activism wanes after August 29th Chicano Moratorium.
Position on the Vietnam War; The Chicano Movement period as dangerous and a dangerous time; Priority issues in the late 1960s; The call for self-determination; Challenges to the Democratic Party; Role of union membership in preparing one for a political life; Political organizing in East Los Angeles; Early experience with Gloria Molina; Early experience with Hilda Solis; Political ideology and the La Raza Unida Party; Move to incorporate East Los Angeles; La Raza Unida in Los Angeles; The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU) accused of power mongering; Business community challenges East Los Angeles incorporation efforts; Dreams for an incorporated East Los Angeles; Trip to Mexico with Walther Reuther and Cesar Chavez; Breakdown of Mexican autoworker unions; United States auto workers organize international autoworkers council; Need to introduce Cesar Chavez to Mexican political and labor leaders; Visiting Teotihuacan with Cesar Chavez; Position on migrant workers and the undocumented; Role of TELACU in community organizing; TELACU's plan for economic development in East Los Angeles; Importance of transparency in implementing government programs for TELACU; Diverse composition of the TELACU Board of Directors; Reflection on TELACU’s current direction; Biggest success of TELACU; Decision to leave TELACU; Returning to the United Auto Workers (UAW) staff; UAW sends list of recommended individuals for government positions under Jimmy Carter; Working with a dictatorship in Argentina; Witness to the Dirty War; Latin American military juntas oppose appointment as assistant secretary of state; Dr. Rudy Acuña’s interpretation of TELACU.
Reflections on the term Chicano; Goals during the Chicano Movement; Success of The East Los Angeles community Union (TELACU); Community activism in the aftermath of the Watts Riots; Creation of TELACU; Decision to leave Washington, D.C. in order to lead TELACU; New TELACU leadership purged union representation; Union versus non-union perspective; Priorities of TELACU; TELACU relationship with Alicia Escalante and the Welfare Rights Organization; Competition with other War on Poverty organizations; Working with Tony Hernandez and the Euclid Foundation; Congress of Mexican American Unity; Finding a TELACU successor; Unsuccessful run for Congress; David Lizarraga's new ideas about corporate integration with TELACU; President Jimmy Carter offers job as special assistant to the Latino community; Negotiating job dynamics and work environment with President Jimmy Carter; Roles and responsibilities while working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
History of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and its original mission; Dangers involved in diplomatic work with UNESCO; Role as chairman of the Geneva Group; UNESCO and the international push for a “New Economic World Order"; Witnessing unequal economic power among UNESCO partners; United Nations and the issue of nuclear power; Lack of autonomy in decision making while ambassador to UNESCO; Differences with leadership responsibilities while at work for UNESCO and The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU); Leaving UNESCO to work for President Jimmy Carter in the White House; Labor/United States government relationship; Experiencing the Iran Hostage Crisis; Decision to return to Washington, D.C.; Decision to run for Congress, again; Role of ambition in achieving life goals; Mentoring David Lizarraga; Critique of TELACU as Taco Mafia; TELACU evolves into a non-Chicano Movement organization; Maintaining grassroots community connection while in Congress; Working on immigration issues while in Congress; School of the Americas and the United States relationship with Latin America.
Congress of Mexican American Unity and accusations of subversive activities; Challenging police brutality; 16 de septiembre march in 1970; Violence at the Belvedere Park rally; A backlash to the continued marches and rallies of the Chicano Movement; Incorporating East Los Angeles; Soliciting Democratic leadership support for congressional run; Attempt to gain Ted Kennedy's endorsement; Golden Palomino meeting at Stephen's Steakhouse; Political field opens for Mexican Americans and Chicanos; Support for Gloria Molina's run for political office; The day-to-day running of a campaign for political office; Wife's support during election; Wife and daughter's influence on political positions; Asked not to join foreign or labor committees while in Washington; Winning a seat on the finance committee; Congressional work with consumer advocacy; Relationship with Ralph Nader; Ralph Nader runs for office; Raising money for the Soccer World Cup competition and other charities.
The 1970s and 1980s call for more Latino representation in the political arena; Experience with Californios for Fair Representation; The Steve Rodriguez versus Art Snyder election; Relationship with Steve Rodriguez; Relationship with Art Snyder; Founding Plaza de la Raza; Modeling Plaza de la Raza after Bazar de los Sábados in Mexico City; Frank Lopez and winning Hollywood support for Plaza de la Raza; Building a board of directors for Plaza de la Raza; Uneven success of Plaza de la Raza; Reflections on The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU) model; Importance of discipline in running an organization; Sexual harassment suit against TELACU; Comparison of non-profit versus governmental leadership models; Simpson-Mazzoli and the immigration issue; Father's deportation; Position on the "guestworker" immigration policy; Current immigration frenzy; Position on the Dream Act; Reflections on current day anti-immigrant sentiment; Voter increase does not equal political power; Iraq war vote; Congressman in opposition to the war; Bid for Intelligence Committee; Work with the United States European Parliament Commission; Learning about trade issues with Europe; Support for the development of a "common market" in North America; Introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement; Labor challenges the idea of a "common market"; Critique of North American Free Trade Agreement; Creation of the North American Development (NAD) Bank; Taking a hit from the labor movement; Creating environmental protections along the United States/Mexico border; Formation of the Mexican American Leadership Institute (MALI).
Role in the election of President Bill Clinton; Experience with President Clinton; Sketching Clinton’s hand movements; Meeting the secretary general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Cuban diplomacy; Vying for the position of the secretary of labor; Losing appointment as secretary of labor; Visit with Vice President Al Gore after losing appointment as secretary of labor; Public versus political life while serving the United States government; Dishonesty and the president’s office; Position against the Iran-Contra War during Ronald Reagan’s presidency; Experience with Ronald Reagan’s use of note cards; Climate in Congress during the Reagan years; Losing political power under Newt Gingrich; Disillusionment with political culture in Washington, D.C.; Role as Democratic deputy whip; Becoming an environmental leader in Southern California; Closing the landfill in West Covina; Legislating environmental protections; Special interest seesaw of regulation and de-regulation; Reflections on time as a United States congressman; Turning focus to diversifying the media industry; Reflections on the George Lopez television show; Grading networks for their Latino themed shows; Working with Native Americans on the casino issue; Involvement with Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles; Goal of Plaza de Cultura y Artes.