Many Arizonans might be surprised to know that Romana Acosta Bañuelos, the first Hispanic treasurer of the United States, was born in Miami, Arizona, North of Tucson! This blog originally appeared on the Cafe Con Leche Republicans web site.
Romana Acosta Bañuelos has a fascinating ‘rags to riches’ life story that exemplifies the American dream, someone who persevered and succeeded despite severe adversity and one of the ugliest chapters of bigotry in American history. Although she was a U.S. Citizen by birth, she essentially faced the same challenges as many Mexican immigrants of the era, and over came those challenges.
She was deported at age eight, returned at age 18 with no English ability, two young children, with just $7 in her pocket, and worked as a factory worker until she could save up $400 to start her own business, later started a very successful bank helping aspiring Latino business owners, and was appointed the first Hispanic Treasurer of the United States!
Early Life of Romana Acosta Bañuelos
Romana Acosta Bañuelos was born a U.S. citizen in 1925 in Miami, Arizona, of Mexican immigrant parents. Her father was a copper miner. In 1933, during the great depression and administration of Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, approximately one million “Mexicans” were deported to Mexico, including Romana Acosta Bañuelos, although she was a natural born Citizen! Eight year old Romana would never forgot the humiliating and shocking experience of becoming unwanted Mexicans, and joining the migrant stream. She later said “As a citizen of this country, I was told to leave. But they certainly didn’t ask those of European descent to leave.”
Historians estimate that during the “Mexican Repatriation” approximately 60% of those deported were U.S. citizens, and most of the rest were here legally. “Mexicans” were blamed for high jobless rates, though deporting huge numbers did little to nothing to improve unemployment. Legislation to ban “Mexicans” failed in Congress, but mass deportations proceeded anyway.
Romana and her family moved in with relatives on a ranch in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Her family rose early each morning to tend the crops, and then Romana helped her mother in the kitchen, preparing empanadas that her mother sold to bakeries and restaurants to make extra money. Romana later said her mother taught her great work ethics and discipline that served her well later in life.
Romana married at age 16 (not unusual in that era), had two children by age 18, and then divorced after her husband deserted her. She moved back to the U.S. in 1943, arriving in Los Angeles, California with her two young children, unable to speak English, and with just $7 to her name. With the ongoing war and one million less “Mexicans”, by 1943 the U.S. was experiencing severe labor shortages, had started the braceros guest worker program, and welcomed back “Mexican” U.S. citizens.
Romana Acosta Bañuelos the Businesswoman
Romana soon found work in Los Angeles, working in a defense plant. Little by little she saved, and married again at age 21. When she had saved up $400, she opened her own tortilla factory with a tortilla machine, a fan, and a corn grinder, and with her aunt helping her she made $36 on the factory’s first day of business in 1949. As sales increased she incorporated the company and named it Ramona’s Mexican Food Products, Inc., which still exists today, run by her children and grandchildren.
In 1963, Romana Acosta Bañuelos and some businessmen opened the Pan-American Bank, to finance Latinos who wanted to start their own businesses. Romana also believed that if Hispanics could increase their financial base they would have more political influence and improve their standard of living. In 1969, Romana was appointed chairwoman of the bank’s board of directors. Within a ten‐year period, the Pan‐American National Bank held deposits of $38,864,000 and assets of $41,472,000.
Romana Acosta Bañuelos instituted scholarships for poor Mexican-American high school graduates to pursue higher education, from both the Pan American Bank and Ramona’s Mexican Food Products. Her stature grew in the community, and she received the city’s Outstanding Business Woman of the Year Award. Later that year, Mayor Sam Yorty presented her with a commendation from the County Board of Supervisors. The Pan American Bank was extremely successful, as was Ramona’s Mexican Food Products, which pioneered Mexican food across the U.S. Romana became a widely respected businesswoman and community leader, respect that drew the attention of President-elect Richard Nixon.
Romana Acosta Bañuelos – First Hispanic U.S. Treasurer!
Nixon looked for a way to reward the Republican National Hispanic Assembly and bring diversity to his administration, and asked RNHA for candidates for positions in his administration. Romana volunteered for U.S. Treasurer, not expecting the appointment, but to her great surprise President Nixon appointed her Treasurer of the United States. She was swiftly confirmed despite an INS raid of her tortilla factory, an obvious effort to embarrass her and derail her appointment, but that didn’t work! Soon dollar bills were being printed with her signature!
Return to Successful Businesswoman and Retirement
In 1974, Ramona Acosta Bañuelos, left the Nixon administration to return home and run her businesses. Ramona’s Mexican Food Products continued to thrive. By 1979, Ramona’s was manufacturing and distributing 22 different food products, had more than 400 employees, and annual sales of $12 million. Ramona’s was instrumental in the making Mexican cuisine popular throughout the United States. By the late 1990s, Romana gradually let her children and grandchildren run her businesses, as she became semi-retired. In 2011, the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Latino Business Chamber of Greater Los Angeles presented her with a Latino Business Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award.
She’s now around 88 and still living, with many fine memories of her ‘rags to riches’ life story.
Bob Quasius is the president and founder of Cafe Con Leche Republicans