My tocayo, Armando Rodriguez, probably got to know and serve under more U.S. presidents in his lifetime than any other Chicano among us. I met him in 1967 when he and his wife, Beatriz, had newly arrived in Washington, D.C., as my family had. According to his book, From the Barrio to Washington, which I featured in this magazine back in 2008, I learned that both of us and our families had been living in Sacramento, California, at the same time and were recruited in the same year, but had not met as yet.
Lyndon Baines Johnson, then president, had ordered federal agencies to beat the sage bushes throughout the Southwest to recruit Chicanos and Chicanas to join the ranks of federal workers. I got a job at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as a press officer. Tocayo got a job running the HEW Office of Spanish Speaking American Affairs. Happily, our paths crossed many times during his several stints in the capital. He will always be a dear friend.
His obituary, which appeared in the Associate Press News, follows:
Armando M. Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant and World War II veteran who served in the administrations of four U.S. presidents while pressing for civil rights and education reforms, has died.
Christy Rodriguez, his daughter, said Wednesday her father died Sunday at their San Diego home from complications of a stroke. He was 97. He had been ailing from a variety of illnesses in recent years, she said.
Born in Gomez Palacio, Mexico, Rodriguez came to San Diego with his family as a 6-year-old in 1927. But he was forced to return to Mexico after his father was deported during the mass deportations of the 1930s during the Great Depression. A young Rodriguez lived in Mexico for a year before the family could return.
“He barely spoke Spanish,” Christy Rodriguez said.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, some of his Mexican immigrant friends fled to Mexico to avoid military service. Rodriguez, however, joined the U.S. Army. “It was not a difficult choice,” Rodriguez told the Voces Oral History Project at the University of Texas in August 2000.
Following the war, Rodriguez graduated from San Diego State University and worked as a teacher and joined the Mexican American civil rights movement after witnessing his fellow Latino veterans being denied house and facing discrimination.
He led Southern California’s Viva Kennedy campaign, the effort to increase Latino voter support for John F. Kennedy’s presidential run in 1960. Rodriguez founded a chapter of the veterans’ American GI Forum civil rights group in San Diego as a junior high school teacher.
President Lyndon Johnson appointed him chief of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office of Spanish Speaking American Affairs. President Richard Nixon later named him assistant commissioner of education in the Office of Regional Office Coordination.
Rodriguez returned to California to become the first Latino president of East L.A. College. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to serve on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Rodriguez continued to serve on the commission under President Ronald Reagan until stepping down in 1983.
Later in life, Rodriguez continued to advocate for educational opportunities for Latinos. But Rodriguez told the Voces Oral History Project that he had always wished he had been able to do more.
“The legacy you leave is what you were worth while you were here,” Rodriguez said.
Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team.