Once news broke last weekend of the passing of former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson, tributes and accolades came pouring in from Democratic leaders. President Joe Biden praised Richardson as “a patriot and true original.” Bill Clinton hailed him as “a devoted public servant and skilled diplomat,” while New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) noted that “the entire world lost a champion today.”
Although Richardson had many accomplishments in his 40 years of public service, he deserves to be recognized as a pioneer in Latino politics as well. He was the embodiment of diversity, long before the term became a buzzword. As one of the most influential Mexican Americans of his generation, he devoted his career to improving the lives of New Mexicans, Latinos and Americans at home and abroad.
Many people are perhaps unaware that Richardson was Mexican American, but there are more ways of being Latino than having a recognizably Spanish last name. Richardson’s father — descended from a passenger on the Mayflower — was an American banker who met his wife while working in Mexico. They married, and Richardson’s father sent his wife to California when she became pregnant, to ensure that his son would be a U.S. citizen.
Born in Pasadena, Calif., Richardson was raised in Mexico City and then attended boarding school and college in Massachusetts. If Richardson’s family history is unique, it is also a typical Latino origin story of love, migration and opportunity.
In his political career, Richardson amassed a remarkable résumé. He spent 14 years in Congress, was twice elected governor of New Mexico, and served as United Nations ambassador and secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. These achievements are especially impressive considering that Richardson was serving in positions not usually held by Latinos. He was the first Latino to run for the Democratic nomination for president (in 2008), helping pave the way for younger leaders such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.
Richardson was the nation’s sole Latino governor during his two terms as New Mexico’s governor. It was here that Richardson demonstrated his commitment to the Latino community, with policies that brought jobs, economic development and new industries to a state where Latinos make up about half of the population. He raised the state minimum wage, promoted clean energy and repealed the death penalty. He instituted environmental protections and was an early supporter of legalizing medical marijuana.
In his post-political era, Richardson attained prominence as a diplomat and special envoy on the global stage. He brokered ceasefire agreements and promoted conflict resolutions in some of the most dangerous corners of the world, which led to several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. His humanitarian missions won the release of hostages and U.S. military personnel from Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan. Most recently, he helped secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony.
While Richardson was certainly proud of his Mexican-American heritage, he did not define himself by his ethnicity. It is nonetheless a part of his legacy that must be acknowledged. Consider that a May study by Johns Hopkins University found that the vast majority of U.S. Latino history is left out of high school textbooks. Or that Latinos are still underrepresented in Congress, in the media and in other elite professions. Our Latino community needs to learn about trailblazers like Richardson — and to celebrate them.
True, Richardson’s political career had its ups and downs. Nominated by Barack Obama for secretary of Commerce in 2008, Richardson withdrew his name due to an investigation into alleged improper business dealings in New Mexico (no charges were filed, and the investigation was eventually dropped). Far more representative of Richardson’s career is the posthumous praise he has received from groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and League of United Latin American Citizens. They have rightfully noted that his success and visibility made him a role model for many Latinos.
Bill Richardson exemplified the best qualities of an outstanding public servant. His storied career is an inspiration to Latinos — and to all Americans.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to NBC Latino and CNN Opinion. Follow him on X/Twitter: @RaulAReyes, Instagram: @raulareyes1.
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