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Olga A. Méndez Senatorial Papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MSS 165

Scope and Contents

The senatorial papers of Olga Méndez (1925-2009) span the years circa late 1960s-2004, with the majority concentrated between 1978 and 2004. This collection chronicles her career as New York State Senator (1978-2004) from the 30th district (changed to the 28th in 1992), which included East Harlem, parts of the South Bronx, Roosevelt Island and Washington Heights. Méndez represented what was considered to be the poorest district in the state, which also had a significant Puerto Rican and Latino demographic. The papers document her legislative functions and constituent service, as well as the realities and aspirations of the individuals, communities and neighborhoods she represented.

Collection materials are largely textual, including correspondence, memoranda, legislative files, publications, reports, newsletters, meeting minutes and press clippings. The collection also contains photographs, artifacts, posters, and audio and video recordings. The folders are arranged alphabetically with items in chronological order.


  • Creation: 1962-2004
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1978 - 2004


Language of Materials

Collection materials are primarily in English, with approximately 5-10 percent in Spanish.

Conditions Governing Access

Open to researchers without restriction, except U-matic tapes and diskettes, which are currently inaccessible.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers may use or make copies of the material for personal research or educational instruction only without the written permission of Mendez's family (copyright holders.)

Biographical / Historical

Olga Aran Méndez was born February 5, 1925 in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. One of eight children, she was raised on the island in a middle-class and highly-educated family. Her mother, Ursula Garcia Fernández (b. 1894), was heir to a substantial family fortune along with her three sisters; she passed away when Olga was nine years old. Olga’s father, Gonzalo Aran Soler (d. 1948), was a Clerk of the Court. His family, the Arans, were among the first French families to immigrate to Puerto Rico in the 19th century. In 1950, Méndez received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Universidad de Puerto Rico, afterwards teaching high school chemistry on the island.

In 1958, the decade of the largest migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City, Olga joined two of her sisters already living in El Barrio (East Harlem). She continued her education at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University, where in 1960 she received a Master’s degree in Psychology. In the late 1960s, she worked on a longitudinal study with renowned children’s psychologists, Dr. Alexander Thomas and Dr. Stella Chess, and also as a research psychologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1968, while affiliated with the New York University Medical Center, she co-published an article entitled “Class and Ethnic Differences in the Responsiveness of Preschool Children to Cognitive Demands.” In the 1970s, she became a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology at Yeshiva University, and successfully defended her dissertation in 1975.

The plight of Puerto Ricans in New York City, particularly those in poverty, appalled Méndez upon her arrival to the city. She herself experienced housing discrimination and protested being asked to take a literacy test when registering to vote. According to Méndez, her commitment to activism began after an experience at a New York City clinic in 1960. After witnessing clinic staff maltreat a Puerto Rican woman who could not speak English, Olga intervened as a translator. Regularly thereafter, El Barrio mothers asked Méndez to act as a translator on behalf of their children, to prevent them from being transferred to special education classes for lacking English proficiency. Méndez continued dedicating much of her time and energy to social justice issues, particularly as they intersected with education and political representation.

Prior to her election to the New York State Senate in 1978, Olga’s posts included Deputy Commissioner for the Bureau of Child Welfare; founder and director of the Parent-Child Center in the South Bronx (1968-1970); assistant professor and director of the Puerto Rican Studies Department at the State University of New York, Stony Brook; and an elected member of Community School Board District 4 in East Harlem (1977). She also helped create the Committee for a Fair Education for public schools in Brentwood, Long Island; was a consultant for bilingual-bicultural education; created the first Spanish branch of the League of Women Voters; was Vice President of the Puerto Rican Association of Women Voters; launched numerous voter registration drives throughout the country; and volunteered with organizations that promoted good government and fair and sound public policy. In 1972, Méndez attended the Democratic National Convention as a delegate committed to liberal candidate George McGovern, marking the start of her political career. She went on to be an elected delegate to the Democratic National Conventions of 1980, 1984 and 1988, when she had the honor of nominating Reverend Jesse Jackson as candidate for President.

Olga’s first marriage was to Rafael Perez, which lasted five years. Shortly thereafter she married Anthony (Tony) Méndez, a politically active lawyer from a well-respected East Harlem family. He was the son of Antonio Méndez, the first native-born Puerto Rican to become District Leader of a major political party in New York City. He was based in the Caribe Democratic Club, along with his son and Olga’s brother, Freddie Aran, who was also a Democratic Party District Leader. In 1970, Olga’s husband was tragically murdered; she never remarried nor had children. Olga admired Antonio Méndez as a father figure as well as for his activism on behalf of the Puerto Rican community. The 1960s-1970s witnessed the rise of the second generation of Puerto Rican leaders, such as Herman Badillo and Robert Garcia; however, the role of Puerto Rican women in politics was still relegated to the grassroots level. Aided by her involvement with the Méndez family, Olga became steeped in El Barrio’s political scene. In the late 1970s she became an East Harlem District Leader.

In 1978, Democratic Congressman Herman Badillo resigned his congressional seat when appointed Deputy Mayor by Ed Koch. New York State Senator Robert Garcia ran in a special election to fill Badillo’s seat, creating a vacancy in the Senate. Garcia’s district encompassed East Harlem, parts of the South Bronx, Washington Heights and Roosevelt Island, and was considered to be the poorest in the state. In April 1978, Méndez won a special election to succeed Garcia with 89% of the vote, becoming the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the continental United States. For 13 consecutive terms she was elected to represent the 30th Senatorial District changed to the 28th in 1992 after re-districting – with high percentages of the vote.

Méndez first took office in the aftermath of a serious economic recession, which was particularly hard-hitting in New York City. Budget cuts had reduced or eliminated funding for many social programs, disproportionately affecting black and Latino communities and leading to historic neglect of New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods, particularly East Harlem and the South Bronx. In the early 1980s, 93% of households in East Harlem were on public assistance. Throughout the 1980s, Méndez railed against the Reagan administration’s fiscal conservatism, which further reduced funding for welfare and social programs, as poverty, homelessness and hunger were acute issues for her district. Known for her dedicated constituent service, Méndez fought to secure funding for district organizations providing services in the areas of education, job training, mental health, early childhood development, daycare, teenage pregnancy, parks and recreation, drug abuse and prevention, HIV/AIDS, as well as for senior citizen and rape crisis centers.

Olga’s inauguration to the New York State Senate, standing alongside Robert Garcia, Herman Badillo, and Mayor Ed Koch. Albany, November 1, 1979.

In the late 1970s, towards the end of the women’s liberation movement, Méndez became an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, attending the First National Conference of Women in Houston as a delegate in 1977. Olga’s first election was at a time when still relatively few women occupied positions of political power. As Senator, she broke with stereotypes and made a name for herself amongst her predominantly male colleagues as a bold, outspoken and shrewd politician. Throughout her career she would champion women’s issues, particularly healthcare, rape law reform and domestic violence.

Some of her legislative achievements included securing an increase in the state’s minimum wage, introducing legislation that provided basic rights to migrant farm workers, gaining bipartisan support for affordable housing and economic development initiatives in her district, and negotiating the passage of legislation creating the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), which allowed for increased resident participation in island operations. She also advocated for Rockefeller drug law reform, combating the asthma epidemic, closing chemical waste incinerators in the Bronx, bilingual/bicultural education, rectifying the undercount of Puerto Rican/Hispanic communities in the census, and ending the U.S. Navy bombing on Vieques.

In 1985, Méndez resigned from the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus in response to the rejection of Herman Badillo’s candidacy for Mayor by a coalition of the city’s black politicians. She also claimed that the caucus largely represented black over Latino interests. In 1987, Latino members of the New York State Legislature created the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, a legislative body to focus on Latino issues in the state. In 1988, their first annual Somos Uno Conference was held in Albany. In March 1989, Méndez was chosen to chair the Senate Democratic Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force.

Her committee assignments in the Senate included service on Commerce, Economic Development and Small Business, Consumer Protection, Education, Finance, Health, Housing, Construction and Community Development, Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, Rules, Transportation, and Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Méndez was Ranking Minority Member of the Social Services Committee and Chair of the Senate Labor Committee, serving also on the Senate Minority Task Forces on Women’s Issues, Women in the Courts, Welfare Reform, Affordable Housing, Child Care 2000 and the Joint Temporary Task Force on Farmworker Issues. In 1984, she was elected Secretary of the Senate Minority Conference and in 1993 was unanimously chosen as Chairperson of the Minority Conference; she was the first Puerto Rican woman to hold these posts. Additionally, she attended the White House Conference on Families (1980) and was appointed by Mario Cuomo to the Governor’s Advisory Committee for Hispanic Affairs (1983).

Olga was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 1990s, and underwent a mastectomy in 1993. She became a committed and outspoken advocate for breast cancer awareness and education, and in 1994 she cofounded First Saturday in October with Josephine Mercado. The organization focused on breast health education and awareness among New York City Latinas, a high risk group due to late detection. They launched outreach campaigns throughout the city, in collaboration with community based organizations and breast health care providers.

After the 2000 census, Méndez’s district changed from a primarily northern Manhattan district to one with nearly 60% of its residents in the Bronx, which led to intense rivalries between candidates from the Bronx and those from Manhattan. In December 2002, Méndez switched her party affiliation and joined the Republican Party, a bold move given that her district was heavily Democratic. Claiming she was always a strong liberal, she stated the realignment was an effort to win her district more resources, funds and access in a Senate controlled by Republicans since the 1970s. She had also endorsed and supported Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani. The switch prompted several Democrats to challenge her in the 2004 general election, and she was ultimately defeated by Bronx City Councilmember José M. Serrano.

Méndez won numerous awards and commendations for her service to the people of New York state and her advocacy on behalf of ethnic, racial, and gender equality, including: the United Organizations Woman of the Year (1978); Hispanic Legislator of the Year (1979); the Operation Push National Citizenship Award; the Hunter College Presidential Medal of Honor (1994); the Humanitarian Award from the Latino Coalition for Fair Media; Lifetime Achievement Awards from the New York City Health and Hospital Corporation and the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force; and the Good Government Leadership Award from the Fiorello La Guardia Good Government. Award-winning artist, Constance del Vecchio Maltese, included Olga in her American Women portrait series with a portrait entitled The Senator, featuring Olga characteristically and impassionedly speaking at a public rally. In 2005, an East Harlem apartment building for low income families located at 91 East 116th Street was named in her honor.

For most of her life in New York City, and until her death in 2009 at age 84, Olga resided at 1215 Fifth Avenue in El Barrio. As both a legislator and community leader, Olga Méndez is considered a true pioneer, celebrated and honored as a symbol of hope and inspiration for the Puerto Rican and Latino communities of New York.


Dávila, Arlene. Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and the Neoliberal City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Laó-Montes, Agustín, and Arlene Dávila, eds. Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York City. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Ruiz, Vicki L., and Virginia Sánchez Korrol, eds. Latinas in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 2006.

Note: Biographical information also derived from the collection and a phone interview with Méndez’s niece, Annette Vazquez.


35 Cubic Feet


New York State Senator (1978-2004) and first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the continental United States. Senate district included East Harlem, parts of the South Bronx, Roosevelt Island and Washington Heights. Collection spans her 13 consecutive terms in the Senate, documenting her legislative functions and constituent service, as well as her leadership and advocacy on behalf of Puerto Ricans, Latinos and other underserved communities. Collection also serves as rich documentation of the realities and aspirations of the individuals, communities and neighborhoods she represented. Materials include correspondence, memoranda, legislative files, subject files, press releases and clippings, newsletters, reports, publications, artifacts, posters, photographs, and audio and video recordings.


The collection is arranged into the following series and subseries:

I. Biographical and Personal Information II. Administrative Files III. Correspondence Files IV. Elections V. Legislative Files 1. Legislation 2. Legislative Correspondence 3. Legislative Record 4. Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force VI. Organizations VII. Public Relations VIII. Subject Files IX. Audiovisual Materials 1. Audiotape Cassettes 2. Photographs 3. U-matic Cassettes 4. VHS Cassettes

Other Finding Aids

English / Spanish bilingual finding aid available (see External Documents).

Related Materials

Politics Con Sabor. VHS. Directed by Rafael J. Rivera-Viruet. New York, NY: Terramax Entertainment, 2004.

Cultural context



Olga A. Méndez Senatorial Papers
Rebecca Machado, Melissa Ribas and Project Supervisor, Pedro Juan Hernández. With assistance from Jonathan Morales, Ana Rosa Perez, and Maria Hernandez.
June 2015
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Documentary Heritage Program of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department.

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Repository

Silberman Building, Hunter College
2180 Third Ave. Rm. 122
New York New York 10065

About the Collections

Our collections consist of personal papers from prominent Puerto Rican artists, elected officials, social activists, writers, as well as the records of community-based organizations. Our largest collection, the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States (OGPRUS) Records, measures approximately 2,900 cubic feet and contains an extraordinary amount of information regarding Puerto Rican migrants and the government institutions established to assist them. The collections date from the 1890s to the present, and document Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, California and Hawaii.