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GUERRERO, MARIA ELENA [LENA]

Elena
Picture, Elena "Lena" Guerrero. Image courtesy of the Legislative Reference Library of Texas. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

GUERRERO, MARIA ELENA [LENA] (1957–2008). Maria Elena “Lena” Guerrero, Texas state legislator and railroad commissioner, daughter of Adela Salazar and Alvaro Guerrero, was born in Mission, Texas, on November 27, 1957. She was the youngest woman ever elected to the Texas House of Representatives, where she served from 1985 to 1991. Guerrero was also the first woman or minority to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission and the first Latina to hold a statewide office in Texas.

Guerrero grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and was the fifth of nine children. Her parents, who were very active in the Catholic Church as well as voter registration drives and poll tax fundraisers, introduced her to politics at a young age. After losing her father at the age of eleven, she assumed a share of the financial responsibility for the family and worked as a seasonal agricultural laborer, often traveling to the Texas Panhandle during the summers. Guerrero later credited her experiences in the cornfields of Dimmitt, Texas, for motivating her to attend college and pursue a professional career. 

Guerrero graduated from Mission High School in 1976 and enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study broadcast journalism. At UT, she became heavily involved with the University Democrats and worked on political campaigns for Carole Keeton, Ann Richards, Ron Mullen, John Hill, and Mary Jane Bode. In 1979 Guerrero became the first woman and first Hispanic elected president of the Texas Young Democrats. During this period, she worked with State Representative Mary Jane Bode to draft legislation to include a governor-appointed student representative on the University of Texas System Board of Regents. The measure was unsuccessful, but a similar law eventually passed in 2005.

After leaving the university in 1980, Guerrero became executive director of the Texas Women’s Political Caucus (TWPC). She then served briefly as the director of education and training for the National Hispanic Institute. In 1982 Guerrero, along with Gonzalo Barrientos, Jr., and Richard Hamner, co-founded Bravo Communications, a campaign consulting firm. That same year, she became the first Mexican American chairwoman of the TWPC and represented the National Young Democrats as a member of the Democratic National Committee. Additionally, she worked on Bob Armstrong’s 1982 gubernatorial run and managed Ron Mullen’s successful 1983 mayoral campaign. In 1980 Guerrero met Lionel Berain “Leo” Aguirre at a meeting of the Mexican American Democrats. They married in 1983 and had one son, Leo G. Aguirre, in 1988.

Lena Guerrero Campaign Flyer
Picture, Lena Guerrero campaign flyer for her state representative election in 1984. Image courtesy of the Austin History Center. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In 1984 after Guerrero’s business partner Gonzalo Barrientos, Jr., vacated his seat in the Texas House of Representatives in order to seek election to the state senate, Guerrero decided to run as his successor. Facing five male candidates in the Democratic primary, she purportedly paid the filing fee in Susan B. Anthony dollars. After defeating Austin attorney Brad Weiwel in the primary runoff, she ran unopposed in the general election and, at twenty-six years old, Guerrero became the youngest woman and only the second Latina to be elected to the state legislature, where she served three consecutive terms representing Texas House District 51 in East Austin. During her time in the Texas legislature, she served as vice-chair for the Rules and Resolutions Committee, the State Affairs Committee, and the Sunset Advisory Commission.  Guerrero was also a member of the Government Organization and Human Services Committees and drafted, sponsored, and supported numerous pieces of legislation. She gained a reputation for her aggressive style, her ability to broker compromise, and her advocacy of liberal causes, including initiatives to prevent teen pregnancy, child abuse, domestic violence, groundwater pollution, and discrimination against AIDS patients. She also supported women’s rights and the rights of agricultural workers.

Lena Guerrero at the Democratic National Convention
Picture, Lena Guerrero speaking at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Image courtesy of C-SPAN. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Outside of the legislature, Guerrero participated in a number of civic and political organizations, including Ballet Austin, the United Farm Workers Union, Planned Parenthood, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Hispanic Leadership Institute. She also co-founded the Hispanic Women’s Network of Texas and was named an honorary chairperson of the Austin American Cancer Society Crusade. In recognition of her work, Guerrero received the 1982 Woman of the Year Award in Public Affairs from the Mexican American Business and Professional Women’s Association, the 1987 Leadership Award in Government from the National Network of Hispanic Women, and the 1989 Representative of the Year Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society. Additionally, Hispanic Business magazine named her one of the 100 most influential Hispanics of 1988, and Texas Monthly named Guerrero one of the best Texas legislators of 1989. She also received praise from national publications such as Newsweek and USA Today and was invited to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

Lena Guerrero Appointment
Picture, Governor Ann Richardson announces the appointment of Lena Guerrero as chair of the Texas Railroad Commission. Image courtesy of the Austin History Center. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In January 1991 Governor Ann Richards appointed Guerrero to fill the recently-vacated chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, a nationally influential state agency that regulates Texas’s powerful oil, gas, mining, and transportation industries. The appointment made Guerrero the first female and first Hispanic commissioner in the history of the agency. It was also Richards’s first appointment as governor. Additionally, Guerrero was named chair of the Texas High Speed Rail Authority, a state agency formed to oversee proposals for the creation of a state-wide bullet train system. As chair of the Railroad Commission, Guerrero supported tax incentives and production limits that benefited small, independent energy producers and was an early advocate for alternative fuel sources. Because of this, national news outlets characterized her as a reformer who angered major oil and gas companies. 

Students Protest Guerrero Campaign
Picture, Students protest Guerrero's campaign after she lied about attaining a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of Texas Monthly, 1992. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Lena Guerrero Grave
Picture, The grave of Lena Guerrero at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas. Image courtesy of the Texas State Cemetery. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

In 1992 Guerrero made a bid for reelection to the Railroad Commission. She gained the Democratic nomination but faced Republican candidate Barry Williamson in a contentious general election. In September 1992 the Dallas Morning News reported that Guerrero never graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and may have falsified her résumé in order to run for office. Guerrero eventually released her academic records and admitted that she left the university one semester short of earning her degree. At the height of her career and amid national media attention, she resigned from the Railroad Commission and apologized. Guerrero continued with her campaign but ultimately lost the election to Williamson. She never held public office again.

After her resignation, Guerrero re-enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and completed her bachelor of journalism degree in 1993. She subsequently returned to the State Capitol as a lobbyist representing clients such as AT&T, Blue Cross, and the Tigua Indian Tribe. She also remained active in the community and joined former Texas lottery commissioner Nora Linares, State Representative Christine Hernandez, and others to found the Latina Foundation in 1997. This nonprofit organization provided mentors and guidance to young Hispanic women interested in public service careers. Guerrero was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in 2000 and given just six months to live. She continued working until 2005 and died on April 24, 2008, in Austin, Texas. She was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, and Governor Rick Perry ordered that flags be flown at half-staff to honor her memory. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Teresa Palomo Acosta and Ruthe Winegarten, Las Tejanas: 300 Years of Texas History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003). Dallas Morning News, September 1, 1991. Sonia R. García, Políticas: Latina Public Officials in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008). Nancy Baker Jones and Ruth Weingarten, Capitol Women: Texas Female Legislators, 1923–1999 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). New York Times October 12, 1992. Texas Monthly, July 1989. Vertical Files, Austin History Center, Austin.

Jessica Cantú and R. Matt Abigail

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Handbook of Texas Online, Jessica Cantú and R. Matt Abigail, "Guerrero, Maria Elena [Lena]," accessed November 17, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgu36.

Uploaded on January 28, 2016. Modified on June 20, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.