Irma Rangel: Public Servant, Feminist Veterana, and Persistent Crusader

HISTORIABy 2022-04-15T15:28:54-04:00April 1st, 2022|
  • Elise Miguel.

Irma Rangel’s name is well known in many towns and cities across Texas. In Dallas, there’s the Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School; in College Station and Kingsville there’s the Irma Rangel Pharmacy School; and in Austin, the University of Texas houses the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute. Though Rangel, a longtime Texas State Representative, is commemorated by institutions across the state, her legacy of promoting social justice and dismantling structural inequities in Texas has remained hidden to the greater public. 

As a public servant, Rangel demonstrated that leadership could be  a tool for advocacy and empowerment, and against inequality. She left a blazing legacy as a leader not just for the Democratic Party but also for Mexican American civil rights. Through education, labor, and welfare rights bills, Rangel advocated for people of color, women, the elderly, and created more opportunities for the underserved constituencies in her district and the state in office. She brought humanity to the center of good governance. Thanks to her fierce command of politics, the Texas legislature became a space for protest and activism. When she died of cancer in March 2003, she had served in the legislature for 26 years. Colleagues remembered her as a “legislative den mother,” and a representative that thoughtfully reviewed proposed legislation, by questioning, “Is this going to help or hurt?” constituents

Rangel was born in the South Texas ranching and agricultural town of Kingsville on May 15, 1931, the youngest of three daughters. Her parents, Preciliano Martinez Rangel and Herminia Lerma were self-made entrepreneurs who instilled a love for social justice, politics, and hard work in Rangel and her sisters. Her father was prominent in both business and government, and her mother was a well-known dress shop owner in Kingsville. Rangel once reflected that “her family took everything in stride,” and when they faced discrimination, they’d say, “Don’t get angry, don’t get bitter. Get an education and make things better.”

Rangel understood the impact of education both in its ability to create upward social mobility and to enable underserved populations to gain a wider set of opportunities. In 1952, she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and a teaching certificate from Texas A&I University, now “Texas A&M University, Kingsville.” Upon graduation, she worked as a teacher in Texas, California, and Caracas, Venezuela. 

Inspired by her educational career, Rangel enrolled in 1969 at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio,. She “wanted to serve people the way her parents did,” and a law degree enabled her to advocate for others and help create system-wide change. Upon her graduation from law school, Rangel received an offer as an assistant district attorney in Corpus Christi. She “refused the offer until they offered a salary equal to that of her male counterparts.” They agreed, and she became the first Mexican American woman district attorney in Corpus Christi. She later moved to Kingsville, opened her own law office, and became involved in local politics.

Rangel was a pioneer in many respects. She was the first Mexican American woman elected to serve as the Kleberg County Democratic Party chair, a local political role that opened the door to the  Women in Public Life Conference at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, in 1975. Over a thousand prominent feminist figures such as Martha Cotera, Representative Barbara Jordan, Liz Carpenter, Billie Carr, as well as Vice President Nelson Rockefeller attended the conference. Among the attendees were pathbreaking Chicanas making “movidas” in both the Chicano Movement and the Women’s Movement. Some of those Chicanas who were also involved with the Texas Women’s Political Caucus eagerly encouraged Rangel to run for office at the state level. As she recalled to “The Monitor,” in Nov. 1994, “They decided I was going to have to run for state rep,” and “then the Women’s Political Caucus approached me and said they would support me. That’s how I got there.” 

Cheered on by her family and trusted confidants, Rangel launched her campaign for the Texas State Legislature, revealing in the process the power behind grassroots mobilization in politics. Beyond familial connections,  she rallied support from migrant women workers in South Texas and  underserved constituents in Kleberg County. She won the election in 1976. In 1977, she became the first Mexican American woman to serve in the Texas State Legislature for District 49. Months later,  she was selected as a commissioner for the 1977 International Women’s Year and a delegate for the National Women’s Conference. 

Rangel was also a fierce advocate for higher education. In her first full year in office, she passed a welfare and education bill that distributed financial support to single mothers.. She was known for arguing: “What affects Mexican Americans educationally and economically in Texas affects everyone,” and, “If there is greater access to higher education, it benefits Anglos and Mexican Americans. If the economy improves, it helps all people.” Former Texas Speaker of the House Gibb Lewis fondly recalled that Rangel was his “favorite person” in the legislature and that “She almost drove me crazy promoting South Texas higher education.

In 1993, she became the first Mexican American woman to head the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. A year later, Governor Ann Richards selected her for induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, an honor that stemmed from her long-term career in civic and volunteer leadership. By 1995, Rangel was a veteran member of the legislature and chair of the House of Education Committee.

Over the course of her career, Rangel radically reshaped Texas higher education. In 1997, she was the primary sponsor of House Bill 588, often called the Texas Top 10 Percent Plan. The college admission bill gave high school students in the top ten percent of their graduating class automatic admission to the top public universities in the state. The bill focused on challenging legacy programs and helping low-income students and students of color with an opportunity to enter top universities. The bill combatted discriminatory admission practices often found in higher education. At the time, Rangel led the House Higher Education Committee and worked alongside an academic team at the University of Texas to implement the bill. The Top 10 Percent Plan remains in effect in Texas today. 

Rangel spent her life as a public servant who broke down structural inequities. Though politicians, educators, and activists have credited Rangel for her radical pursuits in office, her story is much better known in Texas than outside the state. To this day, Rangel’s statue stands in front of the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy at Texas A&M University in her hometown of Kingsville. There’s a Spanish saying, “Dime tu nombre y te diré quién ires,” “Tell me your name and I will tell you who you are,” that embodies the kind of person somebody is. Rangel was a fighter for women’s causes, children, Latina/os, the poor and working-class, and the elderly. Her name is a source of inspiration and hope for those willing to carry the banner of social justice into the halls of government. May her name, and her legacy, reverberate far beyond Texas.