Henry B. González, longtime Democratic congressman and civil rights crusader, was born Enrique Barbosa Prince de González on May 3, 1916, in San Antonio, one of six children of Mexican immigrants Leonides González and Genoveva Barbosa Prince de González. Henry B., as he was known, grew up speaking Spanish, but attended public schools and graduated from Jefferson High School in 1935; the story goes that he used to practice English and oratory in front of a mirror at home, and was reading Descartes and Carlyle by age sixteen. He continued his education at the University of Texas at Austin and at San Antonio College, while he worked for a time for an exterminating company for five dollars a week, and received a law degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio in 1943. He served as a civilian cable and radio censor for military and naval intelligence during World War II. Upon his return to San Antonio after the war he worked as an assistant juvenile probation officer and rose to become the chief probation officer of the Bexar County Juvenile Court. He was hired in 1947 as executive assistant of the Pan American Progressive Association and from 1947 to 1951 helped his father run a translation service in San Antonio.
In 1953 González became the first Mexican American elected to the San Antonio City Council and served as mayor pro-tempore for part of his first term. On the council he became known for speaking out against segregation of public facilities. In 1956 he was elected to the state Senate and became the first Mexican American to serve in that body in at least 110 years, and the following year he attracted national attention when he and Sen. Abraham Kazen mounted the longest filibuster in the history of the Texas legislature (thirty-six hours). The filibuster succeeded in killing eight out of ten racial segregation bills aimed at circumventing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. González ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1958 and finished third in the race behind Price Daniel and W. Lee O’Daniel with 18.6 percent of the vote despite spending a mere $1,600 on his campaign. González was a staunch admirer of John F. Kennedy and during the 1960 presidential campaign served as co-chairman of the national Viva Kennedy vote drive.
In 1961 González ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate but later that year notched yet another first when he became the first Mexican American from Texas elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special race to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Paul J. Kilday. González was assigned to the Committee on Banking and Currency during his first term. He served in the House for thirty-seven tempestuous and occasionally controversial years, and his unapologetic liberalism and fearlessness often led him into what seemed to be quixotic fights, such as calling for the impeachment of three Republican presidents, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. In 1963 he shoved West Texas congressman Ed Foreman, who called him a “pinko” on the House floor, and in 1986 he punched a man in a San Antonio restaurant who called him a communist. But his devotion to the people of the Twentieth District, symbolized by the sign outside his congressional office that read “This Office Belongs to the People of Bexar County,” was absolute. “He was a really important figure for our community,” recalled one admirer after his death. “Un abrecaminos, you would say. Making way for others.”
During his time in Congress, González became an expert on the nation’s banking system and on housing for the poor. He helped pass a number of bills during the New Frontier and Great Society in the early and mid-1960s, including the Housing Act of 1964, and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also campaigned to put an end to the bracero program, under which foreign workers harvested agricultural crops, often in deplorable conditions. In 1977 he served briefly as chairman of the House Assassinations Committee, which investigated the murders of John F. Kennedy (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION) and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a member of of the powerful House Banking Committee, González helped draft savings-and-loan bailout legislation and exposed the industry’s excesses during the 1980s. He was elected chairman in 1989 and used that position to assail the policies of the Federal Reserve system. He also opened investigations that led to the resignation of the government’s chief thrift regulator and to the conviction of Charles Keating, despite the fact that the hearings revealed that five U.S. senators (the so-called “Keating Five”) had close ties to the S&L owner. “Henry was always fighting for the little guy against the big creditor villains,” recalled an economist who had followed his career. In 1992 González charged that the administration of President George H. W. Bush had helped Iraq build up its military before the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which sparked the Persian Gulf War, and had subsequently tried to cover up its links to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The ensuing scandal was known as “Iraqgate.”
In 1994 González won the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library for his investigations of the S&L industry and the Iraq scandal, but his stubborn independence and refusal to compromise kept González something of an outsider in Washington despite his years of service. “I stand before you today, accepted, but seen by some as an inconvenient and unwelcome obstacle,” he told a closed meeting of House Democrats in 1996. González’s last term was marred by health problems. In July 1997 doctors discovered that a dental infection had spread and damaged a heart valve, and he subsequently spent more than half of his two-year term recuperating in San Antonio, sparking criticism that he was unable to fulfill his responsibilities to his constituents and ought to resign. When González finally retired from Congress in 1998, his son Charlie, a former district judge, won the election to succeed him. Henry B. González died on November 28, 2000, in San Antonio, and was survived by his wife, the former Bertha Cuellar, and eight children. He was buried in San Fernando Cemetery II in San Antonio. The Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio is named in his honor.