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Hispanic Heritage Month - Celebrating Diversity in Transportation

by Zack Magallanez
October 2, 2023

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month from the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) team. As we celebrate this month, let's take the time to acknowledge the profound influence Hispanics have had on various aspects of American society. While we often think of cultural contributions in the form of music, art, and food, one overlooked area is in the transportation sector. This blog post shines a light on the significant role Hispanics have played in shaping the transportation landscape in the U.S. It also pays tribute to an exemplary figure in this field, Federico Peña, who served as the Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton administration.

Hispanic Legacy in Transportation

Transportation is one of the nation’s vital networks, one that connects people, goods, and cultures. Transportation is the means to access employment, education, and goods, therefore, it is essential to the nation’s economic health. Over the past few decades, countless Hispanics have made invaluable contributions to the American transportation sector, helping it evolve and expand into what it is today.

Building the Railroads: Hispanic laborers played an important role in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. For instance, traqueros or 'track workers' were Mexican and Mexican American laborers who were instrumental in the building and expansion of the railroad throughout the nation, between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The traqueros tireless effort helped unify the nation and facilitated the movement of people and goods across the nation. Their legacy lives on as being foundational contributors to the transportation system as we know it today.

Aviation and Aeronautics: Hispanics have played pivotal roles in the history of American aviation and aeronautics. Their contributions span across various domains, from military service as decorated pilots and navigators to pioneering advancements in aerospace engineering and technology. They also excelled as astronauts, like Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space. Hispanics have broken barriers and have been instrumental in promoting diversity and inclusion within both industries. Their enduring legacy continues to inspire and shape the trajectory of American aviation for generations to come.

Public Transit: Hispanics have made significant contributions to the development and operation of the American public transit system. They have served as transit workers, operators, and engineers, ensuring the safe and efficient movement of millions of passengers daily throughout the nation. Moreover, many Hispanic leaders have risen to prominent positions within public transportation agencies, advocating for improved accessibility, sustainability, and equity in public transit services. Their dedication to enhancing public transportation has played a vital role in shaping the accessibility and functionality of these systems across the nation.

Federico Peña: A Trailblazer in Transportation

One notable figure, who left an incredible mark in the transportation field, is Federico Peña. A native of Laredo, Texas, Mr. Peña was born in 1947, attended law school at the University of Texas at Austin, and worked as a lawyer in Texas and Colorado. When he moved to Denver during the early part of his career, he worked for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). After his years working as a lawyer, Peña ran for and was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. In 1983, he ran for mayor of Denver, ultimately winning and becoming the city’s first Hispanic mayor. Mr. Peña was chosen to serve as Secretary of Transportation during the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1997.

Key Accomplishments of Federico Peña

Advocating for Leadership: Peña had an unwavering commitment to the belief that the Federal government should play a pivotal role in shaping the nation's transportation systems. He was a vocal supporter of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, which aimed to provide competitive grants for innovative transportation projects, ensuring that federal funds were directed toward projects that had a transformative impact on communities.

Promoting Sustainability: Under Peña's leadership, the Department of Transportation made significant strides in promoting sustainable transportation options. His initiatives aimed to reduce air pollution and congestion through the development of public transit systems, bicycling infrastructure, and clean energy transportation.

Embracing New Technologies: Peña was a staunch advocate for Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which encompasses the integration of cutting-edge technologies into transportation infrastructure and management. Under his leadership, the Department of Transportation invested in research and development projects to advance ITS solutions. These initiatives aimed to improve traffic management, enhance road safety, and reduce congestion by using technologies such as traffic sensors, digital communication systems, and real-time traffic data analysis. Prior to the end of his tenure as Secretary, Peña selected four metropolitan areas for ITS demonstrations, one of which the was San Antonio metro area.

Advancing Civil Rights: Early in his career, Peña spent the majority of his time practicing Civil Rights Law. During his time at MALDEF, he represented Latinos in cases involving discrimination, voting rights, and equal access to education and housing. His legal work was instrumental in challenging discriminatory practices and promoting civil rights in Colorado.

Celebrating Diversity and Progress

Hispanic Heritage Month offers a distinctive occasion to commemorate the rich mosaic of American culture and history. By acknowledging the remarkable contributions of Hispanics, as epitomized by the accomplishments of Federico Peña, we are reminded of the many voices and talents that have played a pivotal role in shaping our great nation. As we pay tribute to these achievements, let us cast our gaze toward the future, envisioning a transportation industry enriched by diverse perspectives and experiences from all its contributors. This collective effort paves the way for a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable world.