The U.S. Post Office in Belen has now been renamed in honor of former U.S. Sen. Dennis Chavez, the first American-born Hispanic elected to the United States Senate.
I led the legislation to rename the Dennis Chavez Post Office as a small token of gratitude to honor Sen. Chavez’s incredible work and his enduring legacy in New Mexico.
Sen. Chavez passed away on Nov. 18, 1962. In 1966, the state of New Mexico donated a bronze sculpture of Sen. Chavez to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. I often stop by his statue on the way to important votes on the Senate floor.
It is only right for Valencia County residents to have a similar reminder of Sen. Chavez’s memory near the community of Los Chavez, where he was born in 1888 and spent his earliest years.
Sen. Chavez left school at 13 years old to support his family, delivering groceries to neighbors and working as an engineer for the city of Albuquerque. But he never stopped pursuing his education or standing up for his community.
As a young man, Sen. Chavez moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as a Spanish interpreter and clerk in the office of New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Andrieus Jones. He walked the halls of Congress by day and attended Georgetown University Law School at night, preparing for his future career of distinguished public service.
After he graduated from Georgetown, Sen. Chavez returned home to New Mexico. He won his first election to the New Mexico State House of Representatives. New Mexicans then elected him to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930 and the U.S. Senate in 1936. To date, Sen. Chavez remains the longest serving Hispanic U.S. senator in American history.
During his decades-long career in public service, Sen. Chavez worked tirelessly to serve New Mexicans and fight for equality of opportunity for all Americans. He was a pivotal and early advocate of civil rights legislation. As then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson described him in a eulogy, Sen. Chavez was “a man who recognized that there must be a champion for the least among us.”
After witnessing and overcoming racial discrimination in his own life, Sen. Chavez led the effort in Congress to pass legislation to end racial discrimination in the workplace. Though he died before he could see landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, Sen. Chavez had laid much of the groundwork for their passage.
Sen. Chavez is perhaps most remembered for his courage in becoming one of the first senators to speak out against the abuses and fear mongering tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. A staunch believer in civil liberties, Sen. Chavez called out what he correctly saw as McCarthy’s attempted “erosion of our civil liberties, free institutions, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth.”
In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Chavez told his colleagues, “A man is measured by what he does in relation to his times, and the fact that we do our assigned duty adequately may not be enough; sometimes we must step out and sound the alarm.”
It took four long years after that speech, but Sen. Chavez eventually joined 66 of his colleagues in 1954 to censure Joe McCarthy for impeding the constitutional processes of the Senate. In doing so, he left a lasting example for leaders today who must show similar courage when standing up for what is right even in the face of loud and powerful voices.
As the chairman the Senate Committee on Public Works, Sen. Chavez also oversaw transformative infrastructure investments. You can still see the fruits of his work all around our state in the interstate highway system and numerous schools, hospitals, airports, water infrastructure projects, and federal buildings like the post office that now bears his name in Belen.
I hope that by renaming the Dennis Chávez Post Office, we will help many future generations of New Mexicans—and especially future Valencia County residents—learn more about the incredible life of our native son. If they do, I know they will be inspired by his legacy to pursue their own service to their communities and to our great state.