Romana Acosta Bañuelos sat quietly at a White House budget meeting in 1971 and listened intently to the economists discussing numbers of a size she couldn’t have even dreamed of when she was young.
When a man asked for a math calculation, Acosta Bañuelos piped up with the answer, but none of the men in the room even glanced in her direction, said Ramona Bañuelos, recalling the story her mother told her.
“Mrs. Acosta Bañuelos is right,” an economist said moments later, after punching the numbers into his calculator.
Treasury Secretary John Connally asked her after the meeting how she figured out so quickly what it took an economist with a machine to calculate. “In Mexico, we learned to do numbers in our head,” she replied. She had attended school only up to sixth grade.
It was that self-sufficient, entrepreneurial mentality Acosta Bañuelos learned as a young girl in rural Mexico that led President Nixon to appoint her as U.S. treasurer in 1971, the first Latina to hold that position and the highest ranking Mexican American appointee in the Nixon administration.
In a career that stretched from a small Arizona town to the heights of the business world as head of a multimillion-dollar Mexican food company and a founder of the first bank for Mexican Americans in California, Acosta Bañuelos helped open doors that Latinos in America often found closed to them.
She died of pneumonia in Redondo Beach on Jan. 15, surrounded by family. She was 92 and had been suffering from dementia.
Acosta Bañuelos was born in the small mining town of Miami, Ariz., in 1925 to immigrant parents, but was one of thousands who left the country during the Great Depression when the government ordered the mass repatriation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. She was seven when she moved to her parents’ native Sonora, Mexico. At 15, she married and by 18, she had two sons.
She later divorced and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a waitress and met her second husband. She taught herself English by reading comic books and with $500 in savings she went on to invest in a tortilla business.
Eventually, she bought out her business partners and the tortilla business grew as people requested items like tamales and Ramona’s signature frozen wrapped burritos.
When a group of businessmen seeking to establish a bank approached her husband, he directed them to his wife.
“You don’t know my wife,” he would tell the hesitant men, Bañuelos said. “Once you meet her, you will forget I ever existed.”
Acosta Bañuelos steered the Pan American Bank through discrimination from officials, who would tell the board that they didn’t understand why “peons” would want to start a bank, Bañuelos said. Acosta Bañuelos always stood her ground.
The bank taught many Mexican Americans who didn’t trust financial institutions how to use banks, take out loans and make deposits, which eventually helped the community buy homes, start businesses and spur economic growth, said Herman Sillas, Acosta Bañuelos’ attorney and friend.
When Nixon’s administration was seeking a Mexican American woman to work for the White House, officials were impressed by Acosta Bañuelos’ accomplishments and asked her to submit her name as a U.S. treasurer nominee.
“She was extremely nervous,” her daughter said. “She told my father ‘Alejandro, que voy a hacer? I don’t know what a treasurer does.’”
He told her to do it anyway, because it wasn’t likely she would get the job and it would be an honor just to be considered, Bañuelos said.
But she got the nomination, and when she did, it was not without controversy. Immigration officials raided Ramona’s and found immigrants who were undocumented working at the company, leaving her nomination in doubt.
The company’s union withdrew from the company and convinced workers to go on strike, protesting the exploitation of immigrants. Civil rights activist Cesar Chavez testified against Acosta Bañuelos at the nomination hearing.
The Senate committee ruled that Acosta Bañuelos had no knowledge of the workers and that she had been unfairly targeted in order to embarrass the Nixon administration, clearing the way for her to become U.S. treasurer.
In office, she found the department too short-staffed and ill-equipped to handle a backlog of work. She personally went through a batch of applications, where she discovered many applications from minorities pushed to the bottom of the stack, Bañuelos said.
Her assistants complained to Connally about her work style, but he responded by saying: “By God, you mean to tell me she’s actually working?” Bañuelos said.
Washington, she said, had rarely seen a treasurer roll up their sleeves and do this brand of work.
Three years later, after the Treasury Department was downsized and restructured, Acosta Bañuelos resigned.
“There was nothing for me to do,” she told the Associated Press. So she returned to Ramona's Mexican Food Products Inc.
A photograph of Acosta Bañuelos and Nixon now hangs in a conference room at Ramona’s, and the family still has frames of the first printouts of dollar bills with her signature on it. But besides the memorabilia, she was humble and didn’t gloat about her accomplishments. The company she founded was sold in May to her grandson and other partners and now earns about $13 million annually, said Edward Medina, CEO of Ramona’s Food Group.
“When you realize there’s this young girl who rises from a little business and winds up going to Washington...that’s a pretty good step,” Sillas said. “She was a great example for her generation.”