Skip to main content

Pioneer Puerto Rican politician dies in New York

  • Story Highlights
  • Mendez said to be first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in U.S.
  • She died after a long battle with cancer, Mayor Bloomberg says
  • Mendez served in the New York state Senate 13 consecutive terms
  • A long-time Democrat, she had switched to the Republican Party in 2002
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Olga A. Mendez, a ground-breaking Puerto Rican politician from New York City, has died after a long battle with cancer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced.

Mendez, widely reported to be the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the mainland United States, was 84.

"Olga's election to the state Senate as its first Puerto Rican woman was a tremendous symbol of hope for a community that now had a seat at the table," Bloomberg said in a release Wednesday. "But Olga's life was an inspiration to countless others, because the doors she bravely pushed opened stayed open for everyone else."

Mendez served in the New York state Senate 13 consecutive terms, from 1978 until being defeated in 2004. A long-time Democrat, she had switched to the Republican Party in 2002 and failed to win re-election to her heavily Democratic 28th district, which included East Harlem and parts of the Bronx.

"Mendez was brash, bold and aggressive because she had to be," New York's El Diario newspaper said Thursday. "She cut her teeth in the Senate and became a battle-ready politician. And she balanced what few politicians were able to do well -- an on-the-ground constituency services with the ability to achieve critical legislative negotiations. This, in a Senate that was controlled by Republicans during the entire 26 years she served."

Bloomberg noted Mendez's bipartisanship.

"When I first entered public service eight years ago, Olga sat me down and impressed upon me -- in her inimitable way -- the importance of reaching across partisan lines to do what's right for your constituents," the mayor said. "That's a lesson I carry with me every day."

El Diario noted that "Mendez successfully fought for an increase in the state's minimum wage, ushered in legislation that provided basic rights to migrant farm workers and secured funding for senior citizen centers. She also fought for resources for early childhood development and gained bipartisan support for affordable housing and economic development initiatives in her district."

Born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, Mendez moved to the Mainland U.S. after receiving a bachelor's degree from the Universidad de Puerto Rico in 1950. She received a master's degree in psychology from the Teacher's College at Columbia University in 1960 and a doctorate's in educational psychology from Yeshiva University in 1975.

An early widow, she had no children.

Mendez underwent surgery for breast cancer in 1993.

"Olga didn't recoil from public life or attempt to hide her condition," Bloomberg said. "Instead, she shared her story and her struggle with others."

All About New York State SenateBreast Cancer

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print