Harry Pachon dies at 66; Latino scholar and activist

Harry Pachon, a scholar-activist who helped focus national attention on the needs and traits of a growing Latino population, particularly in politics and education, has died. He was 66.

Pachon, the longtime president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, had been ill for several months and died Friday at Kindred Hospital in Ontario. The cause was lung failure, said his son, Marc Pachon.

A Claremont resident, Pachon had led the policy institute since 1993, when it operated at Claremont Graduate University as the Tomas Rivera Center. In 2003, it moved to USC, where Pachon was a professor of public policy.

Under his leadership the institute expanded and sharpened its research mission, examining key questions at the heart of national debates involving Latinos, including bilingual education, welfare reform, immigration and political engagement.


“Harry pretty much invented the idea of the Latino think-tank,” said institute director Roberto Suro, who had founded the rival Pew Hispanic Center in Washington in 2001. “The targeted work he did was very original. He produced a lot of imitators, and I say that as one of them.”

Before joining the institute, Pachon spent 15 years in Washington. In the late 1970s he was chief of staff for Rep. Edward R. Roybal, the powerful Los Angeles Democrat and pioneering Latino lawmaker. From 1983 to 1993 he was executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, a nonprofit group he helped organize to promote Latino participation in the political process.

“The entire nation — and especially the 50 million Latinos in the United States — has lost a true giant in civil rights advocacy,” Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, said in a statement Tuesday, noting that Pachon’s “academic and intellectual heft” helped advance efforts to raise Latinos’ social and political standing.

After the 1990 redistricting, his careful study of voting patterns in Orange County convinced him that Republican Rep. Robert Dornan was vulnerable to a challenge by a Latino candidate. The longtime congressman’s district had a sizable minority of Latino voters and a significant segment of white female voters unhappy with the incumbent.


Pachon “spoke to people in both parties, but people didn’t pay much attention to him. Then Loretta Sanchez heard his message and ran,” said UC Irvine political science professor Louis DeSipio. Sanchez, a Democratic businesswoman, became in 1996 the first Latino elected to represent Orange County in Congress.

“He saw as his goal the betterment of Latino civic life,” DeSipio said of Pachon.

Much of Pachon’s work dispelled misperceptions about Latinos, finding, for example, that lack of information, not apathy, was the chief reason for Latinos’ lackluster record in applying for citizenship, voting or going to college.

His studies also highlighted the political diversity of Latinos.

“Hispanics are up for grabs; they cannot be pigeonholed,” he told United Press International in 2003, when he released a survey that showed why many pollsters were baffled by Latinos’ voting patterns. One of the findings was that very young Latinos were as conservative as first-generation immigrants in their religious and moral views.

The son of Colombian immigrants, Pachon was born June 4, 1945, in Miami but spent much of his youth in Colombia. When he was 16, he returned to the United States and lived with a brother in Montebello, where he finished high school.

He worked odd jobs while attending Cal State L.A., where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and a master’s in 1968, both in political science. In 1973 he earned a doctorate in government from Claremont Graduate University with a dissertation on “Ethnic Political Mobilization in East Los Angeles.”

He taught at Loyola University, Michigan State University and City University of New York before moving to Claremont in 1987 to begin a joint appointment at Pitzer and Claremont Graduate University. He chaired President Clinton’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans in 1997.


Funeral services will be private. In addition to son Marc, he is survived by his wife, Barbara; a daughter, Melissa; sons Nicholas and Andrew; and four grandchildren.

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