Mexican community in NY seeks leadership

In 2005, all signs seemed to indicate that the Mexican community, the fastest-growing Latino group in New York, held an important position within the city’s Hispanic leadership.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was trying to rally support for his first re-election–running against Democrat Fernando Ferrer–when the Mexican American Political Association, formed by a group of Mexican organizations and leaders, declared Ferrer to be “persona non grata” and demanded that both candidates include Mexicans in their political agendas.

Ferrer lost. The Mexican community made true headway with the new mayor.

But today, more than six years later, there isn’t a trace of the Mexican American Political Association. Its main member, the advocacy group Centro de la Comunidad Mexicana (CECOMEX), is struggling to stay afloat after its founder, Juan Cáceres, was sentenced to jail time for sexually abusing his daughter. Other members of the association, like Casa Puebla New York and the Tepeyac Association, are not as visible these days due to economic hardship.

According to Alfonso González, a political science professor at Lehman College, although the Mexican institutions founded in the last 25 years have made significant progress, the Mexican community currently lacks leadership. González believes that first-generation Mexicans–the children of immigrants who were born in the United States–will be the ones to shape the stable leadership that the community needs.

Mexican immigration to New York City started at the beginning of the 1950s. The Mexican population boomed between the 1980s and 1990s, but it wasn’t until 1990 and 2000 that the Census recorded an unprecedented number of Mexicans, particularly in East Harlem, Sunset Park and Corona/Jackson Heights.

In 2010, the Census revealed that there are now 319,000 Mexicans living in New York City. The Census figures are believed to be conservative estimates. When taking into account undocumented Mexicans who did not participate in the Census for various reasons, the CUNY Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies put the number of Mexicans in the city at 451,000 in 2005.

Eduardo Peñaloza, the director of community affairs at the Mexican Consulate, stated that “the Mexican community is going through the same period of social and political change that the Dominican and Puerto Rican communities experienced previously.” He added that “festivals celebrating our heritage shouldn’t be the limit. Now is the time to mobilize and search for political representatives.”

Joel Magallán, the founder of the Tepeyac Association, indicated that to achieve those goals, community leaders and organizations need to come together. “Community leaders…have different interests, but we haven’t managed to focus on a common cause,” he said. To begin those efforts, Magallán proposed “alliances between empowered communities and political sponsorship.”

Moreover, the community can learn from past experiences. According to Pedro Matar, president of the East Harlem Mexican Chamber of Commerce, the founding of the Mexican Alliance in 2001, a coalition of community organizations, was the first attempt to form a leadership that would represent Mexicans throughout the city.

The Mexican Alliance organized the first parade to exclusively celebrate Mexican independence day in Manhattan, which had to be cancelled due to the tragedy of September 11. “The Mexican Alliance was a failed attempt to build a visible leadership, but it fell apart because of internal power struggles and some leaders maintaining an excessively high profile,” Matar explained.

Ingrid Sotelo, 22, is one of thousands of Mexican-Americans born in the city during the 1980s. The daughter of parents from the state of Puebla and raised in East Harlem, Sotelo represents the hope of the Mexican community. Despite the community’s demographic size, it still doesn’t have a single elected official.

Sotelo graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in sociology, and has been working in the office of community affairs at the Manhattan borough president’s office for six months.

“Us young ‘chicanos’ should take on positions of public leadership and make our way to the top, because that is the only way that the Mexican community’s voice will be heard,” she said.

Sotelo isn’t the only one that thinks so. The Coalition of Mexican American Leaders (COMAL), founded in November of 2010, brings Mexican college graduates ages 20-30 together, with the aim of identifying and creating leaders that will be able to advocate for the community’s needs.

COMAL consists of more than 20 institutions, among them the Mexican American Students’ Alliance (MASA) at CUNY, where more than 5,000 Mexican students are enrolled, according to official data.

“COMAL encourages us to be socially responsible. The majority of us have the right to vote in both the United States and Mexico. We can make changes in both countries,” said Javier Santos, who belongs to Mexican-American Youth Advising Students (MAYAS), a group affiliated with COMAL.

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