Romana Acosta Bañuelos, U.S. Treasurer Under Nixon, Dies at 92

Before her name was printed on paper currency notes as the treasurer of the United States, Romana Acosta Bañuelos had been deported to Mexico as a child in the early 1930s, only to return a decade later as an 18-year-old single mother.

Arriving in Los Angeles with only a middle-school-level education, she went on to start what became a multimillion-dollar Mexican food company and helped establish the first Latino-owned bank in California.

President Richard M. Nixon, a fellow Californian, cited her business success when, in 1971, he nominated her to serve as treasurer. “In her extraordinarily successful career as a self-made businesswoman,” he said, “Mrs. Bañuelos has displayed exceptional initiative, perseverance and skill.”

Ms. Acosta Bañuelos died on Jan. 15 in a senior care center in Redondo Beach, Calif. She was 92. Her daughter, Ramona Bañuelos, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.

The nation’s treasurer is not a policymaker but rather is in charge of maintaining the general ledger of government funds; handling claims for lost, stolen or forged government checks; and redeeming and destroying worn-out currency. Since the 1950s the post has gone to women, many of whom were prominent in presidential campaigns. Ms. Acosta Bañuelos, a Republican, served from 1971 to 1974.

In nominating her, Nixon was hoping to make inroads among Latino voters in his re-election campaign after a poor showing with them in his 1968 election. Ms. Acosta Bañuelos, one of a few dozen Latino officials appointed by the administration, went on to campaign for the president in 1972.

Confirmed by the Senate, she was said to be the first Mexican-American woman chosen for a high government post.

On a visit to the Oval Office, Nixon produced a felt-point pen and a sheet of paper and asked her to sign her name as it would appear on paper currency. In a firm but flowery hand, she wrote, “Romana Acosta Bañuelos.” Nixon then turned to John B. Connally, the treasury secretary, and asked, “You’ve got room on the money?”

Romana Acosta Bañuelos was born on March 20, 1925, in Miami, Ariz., a small mining town about 85 miles east of Phoenix. Her father, Juan Francisco Acosta, a former guerrilla fighter under the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, owned a tortilla factory; her mother, Teresa Lugo, was a homemaker. Her parents divorced early in her childhood.

Though Ms. Acosta Bañuelos was an Arizonan by birth, when she was 7, during the Depression, she and her mother and stepfather were deported to Mexico as part of an anti-immigrant backlash.

Once in Mexico, Romana was raised by her mother and her stepfather, a miner, in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. “My grandmother, being a very savvy businesswoman, set up a kitchen wherever the miners would go,” said her daughter, Ms. Bañuelos. “She was paid in gold dust.”

Ms. Acosta Bañuelos married Nepunoceno Torres, a firefighter, when she was 14 or 15, her daughter said. She had two sons with him, Martin and Carlos, and by 17 was divorced.

She dreamed of a life across the border. “She told her mother, ‘I think that my future lies in L.A.,’ ” Ms. Bañuelos said.

After arriving in California in her late teens (the immigration authorities confirmed her American citizenship), she found work as a dishwasher and waitress and sold homemade tortillas to neighbors.

Once she had saved about $500, she and her second husband, Alejandro Bañuelos Tapia, a tool and die maker, invested it. “Two Mexican brothers were looking for money to open up a tortilla business,” Ms. Bañuelos recalled. Ms. Acosta Bañuelos eventually bought out her partners and ran the business, Ramona’s Mexican Food, herself.

As a business owner in the late 1940s, she would awaken at 2 a.m. and bring her toddler sons to work with her. While they slept on sacks of corn and flour, Ms. Bañuelos said, she would grind the corn and make the dough to prepare for packing and delivery later. She would then head home for a shower and drop her children off at day care before boarding a public bus to make her deliveries.

In time she expanded the business, adding tamales and packaged and frozen burritos to the menu. Her husband took care of the equipment, and her sons and daughter later joined the company.

Taking notice of the company’s success, local businessmen approached Mr. Bañuelos about joining them in establishing a bank for the Latino community. He steered them to his wife. In 1964, Ms. Acosta Bañuelos and her partners established the Pan American National Bank in East Los Angeles, the heart of the Mexican diaspora in the city.

“The bank was the first bank where the shareholders were Mexican,” said Herman Sillas, a friend who would become the bank’s lawyer. “The federal government was putting up a lot of obstacles. One of the auditors asked, ‘Why do you Mexicans want to have a bank?’ She responded, ‘In Mexico, they have banks.’ ”

Ms. Acosta Bañuelos was serving as bank president and board chairwoman while running her food company when the Nixon White House came calling.

After three years with the Treasury, she returned to spend many more years at the bank and at Ramona’s, which is now owned by a grandson.

Besides her daughter, Ms. Acosta Bañuelos is survived by her son Martin; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Her son Carlos died in 2011.

She was an unwitting pioneer as the country’s treasurer, her daughter said. “My father told her: ‘Honey, let them submit your name. It’s an honor to be considered. We know you won’t get the nomination.’ ”