Irma Rangel (Texas politician)

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Irma Lerma Rangel
Texas State Representative from the 43rd District
In office
1977–2003
Preceded by New district
Succeeded by Juan Manuel Escobar
Personal details
Born (1931-05-15)May 15, 1931
Starr County, Texas
Died March 17, 2003(2003-03-17) (aged 71)
Austin, Texas
Resting place Texas State Cemetery
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Texas A&M University–Kingsville

St. Mary's University Law School

Occupation Educator, Lawyer

Irma Lerma Rangel (May 15, 1931 – March 17, 2003) was an attorney and Democratic state legislator based in Kingsville in Kleberg County in South Texas.


Life and politics[edit]

She was the youngest of three daughters. Her father, Presciliano Martinez "Pres" Rangel, from Duval County, was orphaned at an early age and was able to attend school for only one year. Her mother, the former Herminia Lerma, moved with her parents from Starr County to Kingsville. The Lermas worked in the fields so that Herminia was not able to receive an education past the third grade. When she met "Pres", Herminia found the "man of her dreams," and they married and settled in Kingsville where they fought against stereotypes, discrimination, and lingering segregation. The Rangels had three daughters, including Irma, whom they taught to fight injustice of the poor and oppressed. They also pushed for gender equality.

Pres Rangel worked in farming, ranching, construction, and business. He became a merchant and owned an appliance store, a furniture store, a plumbing service, two barber shops, and a bar. He helped his wife build a successful dress shop located just off the main street of Kingsville, not restricted to the "Mexican side" of town. The three sisters grew up working alongside their parents. Irma would later recall how each week the parents would load their car with clothing from the dress shop and travel to small communities to sell their goods. One of the girls went along to earn her spending money by selling candies.

In 1947, when Rangel was a teenager, her parents were able to buy some land near Texas College of Arts and Industries and hoped to build a home. But the land was in the "Anglo-white" district and the neighbors organized against allowing a "Mexican" family to build in their neighborhood. The opposition was based too on the grounds that Pres Rangel was active in an organization called the Good Government League. This group of progressive citizens, from all ethnic and racial groups, was campaigning for equality in city government and had been able to muster enough support from both Anglos and Mexican Americans to elect the first minority members to the school board and the city council. Ultimately, an important and influential Anglo intervened on their behalf and the family was allowed to design and build the Spanish Colonial style house across from the college campus that Rangel called home until her dying day.

Rangel and her sisters grew up in Kingsville, attending the Mexican Ward School for the elementary grades, and the town's only integrated high school. One of the three sisters went on to the University of Texas in Austin, but Rangel and her oldest sister decided to attend the Texas College of Arts and Industries, now Texas A&M University–Kingsville. After graduating with degrees in education, Rangel began teaching in the neighboring community of Robstown. Then she and her oldest sister, Olga, decided to become teachers in an overseas program in Venezuela. Years later Rangel would talk fondly about the Latin American experience. When she returned from Venezuela she took a teaching job in California, where her landlady had a profound influence on her life.

People frequently would comment about Rangel's unusual accent. Her "loud and forceful voice" included an accent that made her sound as if she had grown up in the northeastern section of the country. She commented to one of her administrative assistants that she had acquired her accent from this landlady in California.[citation needed]

Jeremy Brown, a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller Times, also related in an article he wrote near the end of Rangel's life: "To those who know her, Rangel has an unmistakable voice. She enunciates her words syllable-by-syllable, with the precision of an experienced orator. Her pitch rises and falls, rhythmically, as if she invests a steady but hefty dose of emotion into every sentence. Then there is that accent, which some have said sounds British, or at least European, but which Rangel says might come from speaking Spanish with an English syntax when she was a little girl, in a childish attempt to sound like she actually knew English."

Although the source of her unusual voice might be a mystery, there was never any mystery about what Representative Rangel believed was right. Her hefty voice matched her strong will and she worked tirelessly for the issues that she championed.

This determination to be of service to society and fight for good causes might have been the reason Rangel decided to return to Texas and attend St. Mary's University Law School in San Antonio. After law school, Rangel went on to become one of the first Hispanic female law clerks. After her clerkship with U.S. District Judge Adrian Spears, she became one of the first Hispanic women assistant district attorneys in Texas by working in the District Attorney's office in Nueces County. She then returned to her hometown of Kingsville, where she opened her own law practice and was the only Hispanic woman attorney in the city. Her partner and friend, Hector Garcia, would greatly influence her political activities.

In 1974, Rangel began her life in politics by running for, and winning, the chairmanship of the Kleberg County Democratic Party. But she had more ambitious goals and decided to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. She gathered her girlhood friends, family, and a few newcomers to Kingsville and worked hard to win the seat that would make her the only Hispanic woman in the legislature.

In 1993, she closed her successful law practice in order to serve her district as a legislator full-time. Upon her death on March 17, 2003, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas House issued a news release, which summarized her legislative career. Irma Rangel was always extremely proud of her service on this caucus and talked about her time as the chair of the caucus as one of the milestones of her political career. It is fitting that the news release so correctly mentioned the highlights of her career as she would have expressed them. The news item reports:

"First elected in 1976, Representative Rangel served her South Texas district for 26 years. As the first female Mexican American legislator and first and only woman to serve as Chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, she paved the way for others to follow. A champion of minority and student issues in Texas, Representative Rangel fought for her constituents leaving her mark on the history of this great state."

During her first legislative session, Representative Rangel passed legislation creating educational and training opportunities for single mothers in need of better paying jobs. In 1993, she secured $460 million for the South Texas Border Initiative. In the last legislative session, Representative Rangel passed a bill creating the first professional school in South Texas — Texas A&M Health Science Center - Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy.

In 1995, Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney appointed Representative Rangel Chair of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education. As the first Mexican-American to head the committee, Rangel led the charge to ensure educational opportunities for all children. Rangel joint-authored and sponsored legislation creating the TEXAS Grant I and Grant II Programs, which have allocated millions of dollars in financial support to low-income students. In response to the Hopwood v. Texas decision, which ended affirmative action at all state colleges and universities, Rangel pioneered landmark legislation in 1997 (House Bill 588) which requires state colleges and universities to admit automatically all students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. "She understood that the way people break out of cycles of poverty is through education, and she fought tirelessly, right up until her death, to make the dream of a college degree the reality for thousands upon thousands of students," said State Representative Pete Gallego, now a U.S. representative, from Alpine.

Representative Rangel received numerous awards for her public service. In 1994, Rangel was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame. GEMS television named her Woman of the Year in 1997. In 1998, Rangel became the first Mexican American to receive the Mirabeau B. Lamar Medal from the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities.

Pete Gallego described Rangel, accordingly: "Her life is a testament to everything that is good about public service. I called her a little angel because that's what she was: our little angel. I hope she is resting peacefully. Our loss is Heaven's gain."

In 2003, the Mexican American Legislative Foundation Inc., sponsored the inaugural Moreno/Rangel Legislative Leadership Program to encourage the involvement of young Hispanics in the political process. Named for Representatives Rangel and Paul C. Moreno of El Paso, then the dean of the Texas House, the program provides undergraduate and graduate students from across Texas an opportunity to gain first-hand political experience working in the legislature.

Scope and contents of the collection[edit]

Rangel grave marker at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas

Rangel's legislative collection is stored at the South Texas Archives and Special Collections at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Cecilia Aros Hunter, professor and university archivist, was a personal family friend for more than thirty years.

The collection consists mainly of legislative papers created while Rangel served in the Texas State Legislature for almost twenty-six years and papers left in her law office in Kingsville. Also included are memorabilia left in her Austin office including plaques, awards, certificates, constituents' gifts and other keepsakes accumulated as she traveled.

References[edit]