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MISSION, RGV – Tributes continue to pour in for trailblazing former U.S. Representative Eligio ‘Kika’ de la Garza, who passed away Monday at the age of 89.

De la Garza served as Congressman for the 15th District of Texas from 1965 to 1997, back when the Rio Grande Valley only had one member of Congress. He was chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture from 1981 to 1995, and ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture from 1995 to 1997. His national leadership on agricultural issues sat well in the Valley, which depended much more on this industry than it does today.

Ann Cass said she remembers working with de la Garza when she was administrator of the United Farm Workers union in Texas in the 1980s. Cass is now executive director of Proyecto Azteca.

“As administrator of the UFW in Texas during the 80s, I worked closely with Congressman De La Garza. As chair of the Ag Committee, he kept us posted on legislation and was always eager to hear the issues the farmworkers had. I remember during the mid-80s when we had IRCA [Immigration Reform and Control Act]. He was only a phone call away when we had challenges, like postcards being sent to migrant workers’ homes in the summer requesting interviews and they were up north working. He was on it immediately,” Cass said.

“He supported us with the challenges of the H-3 workers, always making sure that domestic farmworkers had first chance at jobs up north before a grower could import foreign workers. There was a time also where a gentleman was losing his chance to visit Europe, a trip he had won, because of the problems of births by midwifes not being recognized. Kika had the passport at this gentleman’s front door in 24 hours. After decades of public service, may he Rest in Peace.”

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas said: “I had the privilege of serving as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee immediately following Kika’s tenure. Out of respect, we never called him the ranking member. We called him ‘Chairman Emeritus’ Kika served with distinction and provided greate leadership for all of agriculture. He was only my Chairman, but a colleague and a close personal friend as well. Our relationship was a classic example of how members could work across the aisle. He was very proud of his family. My prayers go out to them. Agriculture has lost a great friend and leader.”

De la Garza was born in Mercedes, Texas, but grew up in Mission, Texas, where a statue was erected in his honor in 2012. De la Garza served in the U.S. Navy and Army, fighting in the Korean War as second lieutenant in the 37th Division Artillery. He went on to earn a law degree and years later received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.

De la Garza is survived by his wife Lucille.

Once in Congress, De la Garza served as a founding member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute extended its condolences to his friends and family.

“For more than 40 years, Congressman de la Garza has been an inspiration for young Texans interested in public service. As a founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, he laid the groundwork for what today is a 30-member caucus that represents the diverse interests of Latinos from across the United States,” CHCI stated. “Congressman de la Garza was a true visionary of his time and we will always be grateful for his leadership and service to our Nation.”

State Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio is chairman of CHCI. Castro issued this statement: “I am very saddened to learn of Kika de la Garza’s passing. His life was one of committed service – first in the Navy and Army, then in the Texas Legislature, and later in the U.S. Congress. He worked tirelessly to make life better for Texans, pushing for greater educational opportunity and federal support for farmers and ranchers.

“De la Garza consistently stood up for marginalized people in our nation and supported historic civil rights legislation that propelled important progress in our society. A son of the Valley, he deeply understood U.S.-Mexico relations and helped foster closer, more constructive ties between our nations.

“Kika de la Garza was one of the exceptional Texans whose work inspired me to pursue a career in public service. Our state and nation benefitted tremendously from his lifetime of service and sacrifice. My prayers are with his family and loved ones in this difficult time.”

CHCI President and CEO Domenika Lynch said: “Congressman de la Garza envisioned a Latino community that was more empowered, educated and civically engaged. He brought his vision to life through decades of action and leadership. As a co-founder of the CHCI who was dedicated to developing the next generation of Latino leaders, Congressman de la Garza’s legacy will be honored every time we graduate a young Latino leader from our leadership programs.”

Eligio ‘Kika’ de la Garza

U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California said: “Saddened to hear of the death of my former House colleague Kika de la Garza. He and my father both entered Congress in the 1960s, at a time when Congress included very few Latino members. They spent decades on Capitol Hill fighting for a brighter future for Latinos, and along the way they helped to found the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). I send my deepest condolences to Kika’s family, and join all those across our nation who are paying tribute to his life of service to those in need.”

Former McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said de la Garza was “always a great advocate for South Texas and a champion for the agriculture industry. He was the perfect role model for elected officials to follow. He will be missed.”

State Rep. Rene Oliveira of Brownsville said: “Everyone here at the Texas House of Representatives sends our condolences to his family. Kika was a great man and will always be remembered for the fine work his did in Washington, D.C. Less known is his work in the Texas House of Representatives. He served in the 1950s, and at one time was the only Hispanic member of the Texas House. The Valley, Texas, and the United States have lost a great statesman. He will be missed.”

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen said: “Today we lost a true statesman, Congressman Kika de la Garza. We thank him for his leadership during critical times in our history. RIP.”

A statement from the National Association of Latino Elected Officials said de la Garza’s “unwavering commitment to American agriculture and our nation’s Latino community will continue to affect and inspire generations to come.”

NALEO’s statement continued: “NALEO will always be deeply grateful to U.S. Rep. De la Garza for paving the way for Latinos serving in public service today and in the years to come.”

Texas Democratic Chair Gilberto Hinojosa issued this statement: “We stand on the shoulders of giants, and Kika De La Garza was the biggest among them. Kika fought hard for the people of the Rio Grande Valley. He knew everyone deserved a fair shot to get ahead. Kika paved the way for Latino leaders in politics. Some of our brightest Texas Democratic stars would have never had a shot if not for him.

“A life well-lived is a life of impact and good for others. Kika has set an example for all of us. Texas Democrats offer our thoughts and prayers to Kika’s family, the people of the Rio Grande Valley, and all those who Kika’s service touched.”
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño described de la Garza as one of his early mentors and “one of our greatest trailblazers ever to represent the Rio Grande Valley and this nation.” He said his “work ethic and compassion for his community was unmatched and something that will never be forgotten.”

Treviño’s grandmother was de la Garza’s aunt. “He encouraged me and many others into public service. His legacy and work will certainly live through many of us. I know that I will continue to honor him by serving our constituents in the manner that Kika so ably did for many years during his time in Congress and also by what he did to help mentor and educate many in the Rio Grande Valley once he left the U.S. Congress. He will be sorely missed but never forgotten.”

Click here to read the Rio Grande Guardian’s original posting.