Californians will celebrate the life and accomplishments of Cesar Chavez on March 31, appropriately so. The founder of the United Farm Workers union was a fierce advocate for human rights and nonviolence.
But I wonder, given California’s rich Hispanic origins, if Chavez has somehow monopolized our acknowledgment of Mexican American leaders, especially those from the political world.
One who is overlooked is Romualdo Pacheco, an extraordinary figure from California’s early years as a state.
For 20 years in the 1850s and 1870s, Pacheco was a state senator, treasurer, lieutenant governor, and headed San Quentin prison, before becoming governor. He is the only Hispanic governor in California so far, and the first to have been born in California.
Gov. Leland Stanford appointed him brigadier general during the Civil War. In that role, he took weapons from Confederate sympathizers in Los Angeles. And there is more: He was a judge in San Luis Obispo County, the first Hispanic to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first Mexican American appointed to a United States ambassadorial post, serving in Central America.
Pacheco served in all three branches of government, and at all three levels of government, probably a unique political double trifecta in California history. He also reflected the agricultural roots of the state, having been a Central Coast rancher, and upon his retirement from government, he crossed the border to run a cattle operation in Coahuila province in Mexico.
Most importantly, Pacheco was also on the right side of history on many issues. He abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republican of Abraham Lincoln, becoming the first Hispanic legislator to denounce slavery and declare unequivocal allegiance to the Union.
As a state senator, he refused to participate in Anglo anti-Hispanic vigilante groups, bucking his powerful political supporters. As San Quentin warden, he advocated an end to overcrowding and developed a meaningful work opportunity program for inmates. He was a visionary governor who advocated the expansion of the University of California.
“Much of the future welfare of California depends on the higher culture of her sons and daughters. There is nothing to prevent our establishing a University that will be peer to any in the world,” Pacheco told the Legislature.
Biographers Ronald Gerini and Richard Hitchman write in “Romualdo Pacheco: A Californio in two eras” that his most important accomplishment was his ability as a Californio to bridge two cultures, two ways of life in early California history when Spanish-speaking peoples’ rights were abridged, Hispanic economic losses were heavy and damage to their way of life was substantial.
Pacheco never abandoned his Spanish-Mexican heritage, even though politics of the time were by Anglos who often were hostile to Hispanics. And though he served during the Gilded Age when corruption was rampant, he rose above it.
“Pacheco’s high personal and political character is a guarantee of the faithful and intelligent performance of the duties of his office,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote when he became governor. “The carpet baggers have had things their own way in the State long enough, their day is now about over.”
The next time you’re in the Capitol, stop by his portrait. It hangs on first floor, on the Senate side, near the re-created Governor’s Office. I sometimes provide Capitol tours to students and adults and stop there to recount Pacheco’s remarkable story.
Why Pacheco’s story is little-known is perplexing. Perhaps it’s because he came from a prominent Californio family rather than modest circumstances, or perhaps because he was part of the political establishment. But it’s worth remembering a Latino leader who governed honorably long ago.
Gary Hart is a former state senator and high school history teacher, who served as Gov. Gray Davis education secretary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org