National Hispanic Heritage Month – Roberto Sánchez Vilella

Image: Roberto Sánchez Vilella (right) seen here with David Ben-Gurion, former prime minister of Israel, circa 1958.

Roberto Sánchez Vilella made a number of notable contributions to Puerto Rico’s transportation infrastructure. He was born in 1913 in the municipality of Mäyaguez on the western coast of Puerto Rico. Vilella and his family moved to the city of Ponce in Puerto Rico’s south-central region. After graduating from high school there, Vilella went to the U.S. mainland to study at Ohio State University. He graduated with a degree in engineering in 1934. That same year, he began employment as an engineer at the U.S. Department of Interior and in this capacity he worked on a major infrastructure project under the auspices of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration.

Vilella also served as president of the Ponce chapter of the Colegio de Ingenieros y Agrimensores de Puerto Rico, a professional organization for engineers and land surveyors in the U.S. territory. He served as mayor of Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan during the mid-1940s. It was around this time that Vilella took on another major public service commitment, namely becoming head of Puerto Rico’s Authority of Transport.

When the Department of Public Works was created by Puerto Rico’s newly adopted constitution in 1952, Vilella became the first secretary of this agency. He served in this position until 1959, overseeing one of the most significant periods of transportation infrastructure projects in Puerto Rico’s history. Along with serving as public works secretary, Vilella was Puerto Rico’s first secretary of state from 1953 to 1965 and its second governor from 1965 to 1969.

Vilella died in 1997 at the age of 84. That same year, a major highway that he helped build between Ponce and Mäyaguez was formally renamed the Roberto Sánchez Vilella Expressway.

For more information about Roberto Sánchez Vilella, please check out

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