Among election news this week is that the state of Texas elected its first female Hispanic Representatives in Congress. Florida gave Congress the first Hispanic woman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, elected in 1989. She was born in Havana, Cuba. 

St. Augustine provided the first Hispanic to serve in Congress, Joseph M. Hernandez. I've written about this before, but I think it is timely to repeat.

He was the first Hispanic to serve in the United States Congress, but he was not elected. He was appointed to the position of Territorial Delegate.

After that, Florida's territorial delegates ran for the office. Joseph Hernandez, age 34, served as Florida's territorial delegate from Sept. 30, 1822, to March 3, 1823, in the second session of the 17th Congress.

He was born a Spanish subject in the Spanish colony of East Florida in May 1788. Hernandez's ancestral and cultural background was Spanish. His parents were natives of Minorca, an island in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain. The island was culturally and linguistically Iberian.

Minorca had been a part of Iberian kingdoms (later Spain) since the 13th century although under British ownership from 1713 to 1782 with a brief interlude of French domination from 1756 to 1763.

Hernandez was a member of St. Augustine's Minorcan community who retained their Iberian identity and dialect and their Roman Catholic religion. The Minorcans, who had arrived in then-British East Florida in 1768 likewise continued to retain their Spanish identities and chose to remain in East Florida when the colony was transferred back to Spanish in 1783, rather than relocate with other British citizens.

It was this historically Spanish cultural background into which Jose Mariano Hernandez was born. Hernandez was a citizen of Spanish East Florida until the colony's transfer to the United States in July of 1821, at which time he became a U.S. citizen. He anglicized his name to Joseph Martin (not Marion) Hernandez.

About the year 2000, when I was first researching this question of whether Hernandez was the "first Hispanic" in Congress, there was not the amount of information available online as there is today. So I set out to find the facts for myself — in thick books, especially those from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

What did I find in the research? Although other areas which had been a part of Spanish America — Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana — had been admitted to the United States before Florida, the biographies of Congressmen in "Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1961" do not list a member of Congress born in a Spanish area who served prior to Hernandez's legislative term. The other former Spanish colonies' earliest members of Congress had been born in the United States or in the former British colonies which had formed the nation of the United States and then they moved into the former Spanish colonies. Hernandez was one of the few territorial delegates who was a native son of the territory he represented. Today you can read online that the Office of the Historian of the House of Representatives is in agreement with my work.

Joseph Hernandez ran for delegate for the next Congressional term. He lost in a three-way race to Richard Keith Call, who had come to Florida two years earlier with the U.S. flag. Thus Joseph Hernandez would not be the first Hispanic to be elected to Congress although the first Hispanic to serve in Congress.

 

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.