WASHINGTON – Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Illinois, delivered his farewell address to Congress on Thursday. The Chicago Democrat, whose fourth congressional district was created to comply with the Voting Rights Act, will step down in January after serving in the House for 26 years.
Gutierrez noted in his remarks the changing nature of his district, which takes in Chicago’s Hispanic populations on the North and South sides of the city.
“When the 4th District was created to give Latinos in Chicago an opportunity to have a voice in Congress, I was the first to win the seat. And while the majority of my constituents then- about 65% — were Latino, but on Election Day, the majority of voters were white.”
Gutierrez is not retiring from public life; rather, he is just going on to a new chapter. “My work for America, her immigrants, and the character of our great nation is not done,” he said.
Below, the text of Gutierrez’ remarks….
When I was born, separate but equal was the law of the land. Even in a Northern city like Chicago, a young Puerto Rican kid knew where he could and could not go, which beaches and pools were open to him and which were off-limits.
Segregation and discrimination, by race, gender, religion and sexual orientation were deeply embedded in the customs and culture of our society and upheld by the state and federal government.
So as I prepare to leave office after 26 years representing the people of the 4th District of Illinois, I think it is important to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go before this country lives up to the lofty ideals enshrined in our most sacred documents and origin mythology.
That a Puerto Rican born in Chicago in 1953 – the son of Spanish-speaking migrants with little education who were driven by poverty from the mountains of Puerto Rico – would be able to speak into this microphone at all is perhaps a ringing endorsement of what this nation stands for.
But let us be clear: people sacrificed and died so that I could speak here. People I never met like Medgar Evers, Emmitt Till and countless others died in the struggle against discrimination and American Apartheid and opened the path for me to be here today.
The Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation passed in my lifetime – on this floor -were soaked in the blood of martyrs old and young who kept moving forward until everyone had the right to vote and every vote counted. Even as the President and his party challenge the principles of the Voting Rights Act today, I have always tried to honor those who gave their lives to make America freer and stronger.
To be blunt, were it not for the sacrifice of black people and their allies – who literally had their homes and churches bombed fighting to make this country live up to its own creed – I would not be here speaking to you and that has always and will always guide me.
When the 4th District was created to give Latinos in Chicago an opportunity to have a voice in Congress, I was the first to win the seat. And while the majority of my constituents then- about 65% — were Latino, but on Election Day, the majority of voters were white.
In 26 years and thirteen elections, that has changed. Today, voters on Election Day in the majority Latino 4th District are in fact majority Latino.
Early on, I realized that constituent services in my District were not restricted to veterans’ benefits or Social Security, although we worked hard on those issues. In my District, helping people navigate the complex and expensive process of citizenship was a top need and became a top priority of my office.
We have helped more than 55,000 immigrants become citizens, sponsoring workshops, helping people resolve issues, and setting a standard that I feel is unmatched by any Congressional office.
Just last month I spoke with a woman who told me a remarkable story. Her daughter had assembled all her documents and was prepared to apply for citizenship and then she left the file on the Chicago subway system.
A few days later, this woman told me, a knock came at her door. Someone had found her daughter’s folder, and – they didn’t give it to CTA’s lost and found but rather made sure it got to my office on Fullerton Avenue.
My office and staff were so associated with citizenship and helping the immigrant community that this Good Samaritan felt there was only one logical place to return the precious documents and indeed – we worked with her daughter and made sure all her documents and fees were filed.
When I walk through my District and talk with moms and dads, they tell me how my office touched their families. Whether it was for citizenship or fighting someone’s wrongful deportation, my office has done more than just help constituents, we have literally helped them preserve their families.
It is the legacy of helping families and individuals and making this country a more welcoming place for people – people a lot like my parents from rural Puerto Rico – that is what I carry with me as I leave. My work for America, her immigrants, and the character of our great nation is not done, it is simply switching to private life. We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
But to all of my colleagues past and present, thank you for walking with me on this journey these many years.