Pete Chacon dies at 89; San Diego lawmaker who backed bilingual education

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, left, is shown in his San Diego headquarters during his run for governor in 1986 with Assemblyman Peter Chacon, right.
(Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)

When she was a high school student in the 1980s, Lorena Gonzalez was asked to write an essay about the person who had most influenced her plans for the future.

She did not hesitate: Assemblyman Peter Chacon, long a leader in the Latino political movement, considered the father of bilingual education in California and author of numerous efforts to better the lives of the economically disadvantaged.

Gonzalez went on to college, law school and years as a labor leader in San Diego, and in 2013 was elected to the Assembly from the area of San Diego County that Chacon represented for more than two decades.

On Friday, at the request of Gonzalez, the Assembly adjourned in memory of Chacon, who died Dec. 14 at 89.

“He was an icon in the Latino community,” said Gonzalez, like Chacon, a Democrat. “He was a shining example that a Latino could be elected and do great things.”


Peter Robert Chacon was born June 10, 1925, in Phoenix, one of seven children. He picked beets, shined shoes and parked cars to support his family. As a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, he flew 35 missions over Germany.

Using the GI Bill, he attended San Diego State, the first member of his family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in school administration.

He joined the Catholic Youth Organization and was a co-founder of the Chicano Federation. He lobbied on behalf of creation of Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, a seminal moment in the rise of Latino political strength.

When he decided to enter politics in 1970, his moderate temperament and war record made him acceptable to the region’s Republican-dominated business establishment and the conservative owners and editors of the San Diego newspaper.

“They figured,'Yes, he’s a Chicano and he cares for the poor and these little brown people, but he’s not scary, not some wild-eyed activist,’” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), who served in the Legislature before being elected to Congress in 2012.

“That was Pete Chacon: a solid guy, thoughtful, decent, the kind of guy that everybody was comfortable with,” said Vargas. “He was the gold-standard for Latino politicians.”

In 1970, Chacon was elected to the Assembly from a district that included parts of San Diego and suburban communities to the south. He was the first Latino elected to the Assembly from San Diego County and only the second in modern-day California.

He held the office for 22 years and was a leader in the growing Latino caucus, although in his final years before his retirement he faced opposition from candidates who said the district needed a more assertive approach.

As a teacher and then an elementary-school principal, Chacon had been alarmed at the English-only style of teaching that left many students, particularly from immigrant families, floundering.

He joined then-State Sen. George Moscone to sponsor a bilingual education bill approved in 1976. He was also a sponsor or key backer of legislation to support housing for low-income families and to develop a statewide prenatal healthcare system.

In his latter years in the Legislature he was criticized for living in Placerville outside Sacramento rather than returning each weekend to his district. He responded that he and his wife, Jean, lived in Placerville so they could see each more frequently, not just on weekends and legislative recesses.

He was also snared in controversy in 1989 over an honorarium that he accepted from a trade group for the check-cashing industry after he had dropped a bill that would have regulated the industry. The Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that the action did not merit a criminal charge, but the political damage was done.

In 1991 and 1992, during his final term in the Assembly, Chacon served as chairman of the Assembly redistricting committee. He was determined to see that Latino communities not be split up among districts and their political influence diluted, said Alan Clayton, a longtime advisor to Latino rights groups.

Chacon weathered a confrontation with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a Democrat, and Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. In the end, a masters panel overseen by the courts sided with Chacon’s efforts, leading to a rise in Latinos being elected, Clayton said.

“Chacon changed the face of politics in California,” Clayton said. “He was the man who opened the door for Latinos.”

A devout Catholic, Chacon also successfully encouraged the church in San Diego to hold a special Mass for people with AIDS. In the late 1980s he helped establish a task force to educate the Latino and African American communities about AIDS.

“No doubt that work saved countless lives,” Gonzalez said.

After he retired from the Assembly in 1992, he rarely involved himself in public issues and, unlike some former legislators, did not seek to influence his political party, although younger politicians, like Vargas, often sought his counsel.

Chacon is survived by his sons Chris, Paul, Ralph and Jeff, brothers Mark Chacon and Ben Mora, and 10 grandchildren. His wife died last March.

Chacon’s final years were spent at the Nazareth House, a Catholic hospice and palliative care facility in San Diego. He died there of pneumonia.

Twitter: @LATsandiego