Former Rep. Esteban Torres, a one-time welder in an auto plant who became U.S. ambassador to UNESCO and director of the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs before serving eight terms in the House, will receive the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest honor, in a virtual ceremony.
Torres was also a union organizer, artist and advocate for diversity in media as chair of the National Latino Media Council.
“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,’’ said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. “Esteban Torres has done all of that and more.”
Serving in the House from 1983-99, Torres was deputy majority whip, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Consumer Affairs and Coinage Subcommittee of the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee.
Torres’ anti-gang legislation became law as part of the 1994 Crime Bill. He authored the Truth-in-Savings Act of 1992 which simplified the disclosure of interest rates and conditions for savings accounts.
Torres was born in Miami, Arizona on Jan. 27, 1930. His family moved to East Los Angeles when he was 6 years old. He graduated from Garfield High School in 1949 then he joined the U.S. Army, serving in the Corps of Engineers during the Korean conflict.
After being discharged in 1953 with the rank of sergeant first class, Torres used his benefits from the GI Bill to study at the Los Angeles Art Center.
“I thought about teaching in fine arts, but we had started raising a family and I had to go to work as a welder,’’ Torres once said in an interview.
Torres was introduced to politics through his activism in the local branch of the United Auto Workers. In 1958 his co-workers elected him chief steward of the Local 230. He was later appointed the UAW organizer for the western region of the United States.
UAW President Walter Reuther selected Torres to be an international representative for the union, based in Washington, D.C. He was the director of the UAW’s Inter-American Bureau for Caribbean and Latin American Affairs from 1964-68. Torres returned to the Los Angeles area in 1968, founding The East Los Angeles Community Union, a community action organization that grew under his stewardship into one of the nation’s largest antipoverty agencies.
Torres unsuccessfully challenged Rep. George Danielson in 1974, then returned to Washington to be the UAW’s assistant director for international affairs.
Torres was also chair of the board of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the nonprofit museum and cultural center in downtown Los Angeles that serves as the only museum documenting and celebrating Los Angeles’ Latino history.
Some of Torres’ sketches and sculpture have been displayed at the museum. “We were all really amazed at how talented he was,” said John Echeveste, the museum’s CEO. “He kept all these sketchbooks of foreign dignitaries he had drawn in places he visited.”
Torres’ other honors includes having a high school in East Los Angeles named for him. The 171 past recipients of the UCLA Medal include former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright, Warren Christopher and Hillary Clinton, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, former United Nations Secretary-Generals Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon, former UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden, Sir Lawrence Olivier, singer Ella Fitzgerald and former Los Angeles Mayors Tom Bradley and Antonio Villaraigosa.