Irma Rangel, educator, attorney, and politician, was born in Kingsville, Texas, on May 15, 1931, to Presciliano Martinez and Herminia (Lerma) Rangel. She was the youngest of three daughters. Her father was a farmer and merchant, owning a bar, two barbershops, and several other stores. Her mother was a dressmaker and also owned her own shop. While growing up in Kingsville, Rangel attended the "Mexican Ward" elementary school but later graduated from the town's integrated and only high school. Nevertheless, as a Tejana, she grew up in an environment where racism was a fact of life. Choosing not to allow prejudice to limit their goals and expectations, the Rangel family broke down some barriers. Their announcement to build a home in an all-Anglo section of Kingsville, for example, surely invited protest, yet the episode ended successfully when a prominent member of the white community intervened on their behalf. Rangel graduated in 1952 from the Texas College of Arts and Industries, now known as Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Following graduation, she started a career as an educator. She served as a teacher in several South Texas towns, Menlo Park, California, and Caracas, Venezuela, where she was principal. At the age of thirty-five, Rangel decided to pursue a law degree. She graduated from St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio in 1969 and went on to become one of the first Hispanic female law clerks for a federal district judge. After her clerkship with Judge Adrian Spears, she became one of the first Hispanic female assistant district attorneys in Texas while working in the Corpus Christi office. In 1973 she returned to her hometown to become a partner in the firm Garcia and Rangel with her friend Hector Garcia. Rangel was the only female Hispanic attorney in Kingsville at the time. She later practiced solo from 1983 to 1993.
Rangel's involvement with politics began in 1974 when she became chairperson of the Kleberg County Democratic Party. In 1976 she ran successfully for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives and became the first Mexican American woman elected to the legislature. She served the Forty-Ninth Legislative District, representing Kenedy, Kleberg, Willacy, and Hidalgo counties, for twenty-six years. Rangel quickly earned a reputation as a proponent of higher education and equal rights for minorities and the poor. During her first legislative session, she sponsored and passed House Bill 1755 that provided education and employment programs for mothers with dependent children. With the passage of the "South Texas Border Initiative" in 1993, Rangel secured $450 million for institutions of higher education in her impoverished region of the state. From 1995 to 2003, Rangel served as chair of the House Higher Education Committee. In response to the 1996 Hopwood v. State of Texas decision, which declared affirmative action illegal in the admission process for institutions of higher education, Rangel co-authored House Bill 588 with Senator Gonzalo Barrientos. Commonly referred to as the "Top Ten Percent Plan," the law required that all public colleges and universities in Texas automatically admit students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school class. In 2001 Rangel continued her efforts to provide educational opportunities for her home region. House Bill 1601 provided the funding needed to create the first professional school in South Texas. The Irma Rangel College of Pharmacy opened its doors at Texas A&M University-Kingsville on August 10, 2006.
Consequently, Rangel was honored for her contributions to higher education and commitment to the Hispanic community. She was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1994 and named "Legislator of the Year" in 1997 by the Mexican American Bar Association. In 1998 she received the "Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievements Award," becoming the first Hispanic woman and the third Texan to receive the honor. That same year she was honored by the Hispanic Caucus of the American Association for Higher Education with the "Outstanding Support for Hispanic Issues in Higher Education" award. Rangel survived breast and ovarian cancer before finally losing her battle to brain cancer on March 18, 2003. Irma Rangel is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin. Her papers and memorabilia are archived at the Irma Lerma Rangel Collection at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.