UCLA Medal Presentation to Esteban E. Torres


Greetings! I am glad you are joining us to honor a local hero and award the UCLA Medal to Congressman Esteban Torres.

Esteban Edward Torres was born in Arizona on January 27, 1930. His early years were spent living in a miners’ camp of tent dwellings in Miami, Arizona. Depression-era America was unkind to many immigrants, and Mexican and Mexican Americans endured waves of deportations. Sadly, the Torres family suffered these injustices when Torres was only a small boy and his father was deported in retaliation for his labor organizing. Torres never saw his father again.

Growing up during the Depression, without a father to help guide him, facing widespread discrimination against Latinos was a heavy burden. But that burden did not break Torres. Instead it helped inspire an ethic that guided his career: “Organize, organize, organize. Speak up. Never, never give up.”

Torres lived that ethic and heeded the call to service. He heeded that call serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and earning the rank of sergeant first class.

After the war, he again heeded the call to service when, while working as a welder in the auto industry, his fellow members in the United Auto Workers union elected him chief steward of the Local 230.

He heeded the call to service when he was later appointed the UAW organizer for the western region of the United States, then as a UAW international representative in Washington, D.C., and later as the union’s director for Caribbean and Latin American Affairs.

His concern for worker’s well-being drove his deepening involvement with economic justice issues and, in 1968, he heeded the call to service again by beginning The East Los Angeles Community Union (or TELACU), a community-action organization that became one of the nation’s largest antipoverty agencies under his guidance.

Torres’ leadership impressed people beyond Los Angeles, of course, and in 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed him Permanent Representative to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (or UNESCO), an ambassador-level position that he followed by serving in the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs from 1979 through 1981 under President Carter.

In the early 1980’s, seeing clearly that people of color and those of modest income were being cut out and left behind by supply-side economics, Torres declared “our cities are really in a state of decay — our road systems, our bridges, our waterways, our court facilities.” Torres ran for congress and was elected in 1982. He went on to win several re-election campaigns with overwhelming support.

Among other duties, Torres sat on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee; the Small Business Committee; and the Appropriations Committee; and chaired subcommittees on Consumer Affairs, Environment and Labor.

As a laborer and union leader, Torres deeply understood that the economic vulnerabilities faced by many Americans were made worse by banking and finance industries. So, he authored the Truth in Savings Act. That law required banks to disclose clear information about fees terms, and conditions for savings accounts. He also helped pass legislation to improve consumers’ access to their credit histories and to allow them to more easily challenge errors in their credit reports.

Torres also established himself as an environmental justice advocate and helped develop the Hazardous Waste Control Act of 1983, which required landfill owners to conduct studies on the health risks their properties posed to nearby communities.

While the absence his father deeply impacted him, so did the presence of his mother and grandmother. As he explained, they “were very strong women, very educated and very proud to be Mexicans.” They instilled that pride in Torres and it helped lead him to serve the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and become an example of effective leadership at a time when few Latinos were present in the highest levels of our government.

His commitment to the community was matched only by his commitment to the family he created with his wife Arcy, with whom he raised five children: Carmen, Camille, Selina, Esteban and our very own Rena! I have no doubt that Rena’s enormous contributions to UCLA have been inspired by her father’s example of service.

At UCLA, we teach our students to care deeply and work hard, to seek common ground and prize the public good, to build bridges and create pathways for those who come behind. Esteban Torres has done all of that and more. It is for these reasons that I am proud to bestow upon him the UCLA Medal.

Before we hear from Congressman Torres, I would like to read the citation that accompanies the UCLA Medal, which says:


From the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the U.S. House of Representatives, from the inner cities to the international stage, you have put service at the center of your professional life.

As a legislator, labor leader, activist and diplomat, you have demonstrated a keen understanding of the ways government policy translates into real impact on individual lives. Your legislative career has produced protections for the safety, health and well-being of people often overlooked by the powerful and the comfortable. Your willingness to confront hard issues like poverty, environmental racism, arms control, consumer protection, domestic violence and more demonstrates a vigorous commitment to the public good writ large. At the same time, your championing of Latino Americans has opened doors, raised consciousness and made powerful contributions to the important causes of racial equity and inclusion.

Your legacy includes the legislation you helped pass, the high school that bears your name and the lives of those who have benefitted from your care and concern. Your principled voice and inspiring example will continue to impact the people of Los Angeles, California and the United States for generations to come. Your civic-minded commitment to public service and justice embodies the best values of UCLA. For these reasons, we are proud to bestow upon you the UCLA Medal.

Thank you, Congressman Torres!