Esteban Torres: From Margin to Center

Johnson - Torres - Featured

Doug Johnson
April 3, 2019

Prior to his career in government, Esteban Torres was a labor organizer and activist. He sought change by working from the progressive margins of the system, engaging in nonviolent protest to fight social inequality. In this undated photograph, Torres (left) and his fellow protestors wear the fashion of respectability, with Torres looking perhaps the most respectable of all in a suit and tie. It is an image in stark contrast to the photographs of hippies that many associate with counterculture protest in the 1960s.

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Esteban Torres picketing, ca. 1967. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

The photograph below was taken at the Mexican Independence Day parade in 1970. Two and a half weeks earlier, sheriff’s deputies had brutally quashed the National Chicano Moratorium rally in Laguna Park (now Salazar Park). Three people were killed, including journalist Ruben Salazar. Torres’s defiant gesture—a raised fist—has a long history. It was used by the International Workers of the World, by the antifascists during the Spanish Civil War, by the important Mexican artists’ collective Taller de Gráfica Popular, and by activists in the Black Power Movement.

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Activists march in the Mexican Independence Day parade, East Los Angeles, September 16, 1970. From left: Father John Luce, Richard Martinez, Rosalio Muñoz, Esteban Torres. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

In 1974 Torres was recognized by the United Auto Workers for his contributions to social justice, which included heading TELACU (The East Los Angeles Community Union), a Community Development Corporation (CDC) that he helped found in 1968. As part of a voter registration drive, a testimonial dinner was held in his honor. Though Torres was the honoree, he seems to have been eclipsed somewhat by the presence of his friend and ally César Chávez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, whose photo was given repeated, prominent placement on the program. Someone, perhaps Torres himself, even inscribed “Viva Cesar” on the cover.

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Testimonial dinner program, February 14, 1974. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

In 1977 Torres gave up his outsider status and assumed his first role in government. President Jimmy Carter appointed him ambassador to UNESCO and, later, special assistant to the president for Hispanic affairs. In this 1980 photo Torres and Carter confer next to Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

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Jimmy Carter and Esteban Torres, 1980. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

In 1982 Torres was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and he would go on to serve eight terms for his district in southeastern Los Angeles County. Before he began his career in public service, Torres went to art school, and he occasionally mused what his life would have been like had he followed that path. As a politician, he used his artistic talent to document his years in Congress with sketches. Here, he and his (male) colleagues smoke cigarettes and watch the Iran-Contra hearings on television.

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Lt. Col. North Testifying on T.V, Democratic Cloak Room, July 8, 1987, by Esteban Torres. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Torres the agitator became a consummate insider and a proud defender of the Democratic Party’s ideals. He rose to the position of deputy whip in his party and was one of the driving forces in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In this 1990 sketch he appropriates a phrase that was often associated with Ronald Reagan—“a shining city on the hill”—for a vision of a Democratic utopia. Torres includes people of various ages and, tellingly, a man in a hardhat—a worker. The Honorable Esteban Torres never stopped being a union man.

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The Future: A Shining City on the Hill, 1990, by Esteban Torres. Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

All materials are from the Esteban Torres Papers, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.


Doug Johnson is the Archives Specialist at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. He was previously a processing archivist at UCLA Library Special Collections and at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library. He has a graduate degree in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and a BA in Religion from Williams College.