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Illinois Latinos and Government 

Trailblazer of the Day | Wednesday, September 25, 2013

William Rodriguez and Irene Hernandez

William E. Rodriguez (1879-1970) was a man of many milestones. He was the first Latino graduate of John Marshall Law School, first Latino Chicago Alderman and a founder of the Chicago chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Born and raised in Naperville, Illinois, Rodriguez first ran for Chicago City Council in 1910 at age 31. He garnered only 324 votes in that debut campaign, but was undaunted, running for Mayor of Chicago the very next year. He came in a distant third in that race, but tried again for Chicago City Council, winning a two-year term in 1916 (and taking his seat on the same day as Oscar DePriest, Chicago’s first African-American alderman).

During his tenure as Alderman, Rodriguez fought for those who had no voice, taking on the private transit companies for their steep fares and railing against corruption in Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson’s City Hall. Defeated for reelection, he returned to practicing law and helped found the ACLU. He died in 1970, having continued to practice law into his late eighties.

The first successful Latina in Illinois politics was Irene C. Hernandez (1916-1997), who was appointed by Mayor Richard J. Daley to fill out a vacancy on the Cook County Board in 1974, and elected in her own right four more times, serving until 1993.

Born in Texas to Mexican-born parents, Hernandez moved to Chicago in 1926. Her bilingual skills helped her get hired at the Argentine and Venezuelan consulates, which opened doors to many political figures. In 1945, she joined the county Democratic organization, and soon became a precinct captain and court bailiff. As a County Commissioner, Hernandez was best known for fighting for health care for the poor. She was the mother of seven children, raising five of them as a single mother after her husband passed away at an early age.

Irene Hernandez is remembered with an elementary school named for her on Chicago’s Southwest Side and a Cook County Forest Preserve District park on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

When Irene Hernandez was on the County Board, Latinas in Illinois politics were almost nonexistent. Today, there are a record-high six Latinas in the Illinois General Assembly, reminding us of two more Latina trailblazers: Sonia Silva, who in 1997 became the first Latina in the Illinois House, and Iris Y. Martinez, who in 2003 became the first Latina in the Illinois Senate and then the first Latina to hold a leadership post in the Illinois Legislature.

Other Illinois Latino political milestones:

1980 – U.S. Navy veteran and community activist Raymond Castro is elected as the first Latino Ward Committeeman in Chicago, upsetting a former Chicago City Treasurer.

1986 - Miguel Del Valle is the first Latino elected to the State Senate, rising to the position of Assistant Majority Leader, a first for Latinos. Almost 20 years later, Del Valle was appointed to serve as City Clerk of Chicago, another Latino milestone.

1992- Luis Gutiérrez, a former cabdriver, caseworker and Chicago Alderman, becomes the first Latino elected to the U.S. Congress from the Midwest. Also in 1992, Jesús “Chuy” García becomes the first Mexican-American elected to State Senate.